Sunday, October 10, 2010

Tip-Toe Around the Tuition Tiff

As the parent of a college student, I was interested in the news reports last week concerning the estimates from Colorado colleges and universities regarding tuition increases that could approach 20 to 25 percent at some institutions.

After reading about this in several different media outlets, I'm left with more questions than answers. Along with concerns about Mesa State's approach to this process, I'm also concerned as to how the local and state media reported on this. The coverage seemed to generate more confusion than clarity about the significance of last week's activity. 
Here's what I can sort out so far:

There's a new state law, Senate Bill 3, that establishes a mechanism for state-run colleges to raise tuition above a ceiling of 9 percent in any given academic year. If the colleges want to raise tuition below 9 percent, they are free to do so. Any more than that requires the colleges to file a waiver request in the form of a five-year Financial Accountability Plan (FAP) with the Colorado Commission on Higher Education (CCHE). CCHE must approve the plans, which must also contain contingencies for addressing the tuition needs of lower-income students. These plans were due last Friday, and their contents are the fodder for the recent media activity.   

All of the state colleges filed plan documents except one - Colorado School of Mines. The CCHE accepted all of the plans except one - Mesa State's. In an Associated Press story on Page One of last Thursday's Sentinel, it was reported that MSC's plan did not specify an increase, just "only that it would not increase rates if state funding remained the same". 

This reporting seemed to oversimplify what MSC actually submitted, however. A story in Education News Colorado stated this about Mesa State's proposal:  
The current draft says Mesa can contain tuition increases to 9 percent or less in the next two schools years unless state support is cut by 10 percent or more from the current assumption of $555 million for all colleges in 2011-12. If that happens, the application says, “The college reserves the right to revise its FAP accordingly, based on new information.”
Considering the current budgetary situation the state finds itself in, a greater than 10 percent cut in overall college funding is pretty likely. It sounds to me as if Mesa State submitted the plan the way it did in an attempt to make sure it could raise tuition above the 9 percent cap, without committing to a definitive number until it sees similar definitive numbers from the legislature next year. That sounds pretty reasonable on the surface, but is the issue critical enough to challenge the state's process? Judging from the rhetoric coming from Lowell Heiny Hall, it would appear so.

In the AP story, Mesa State President Tim Foster sounded downright combative about the issue, calling out CCHE Director Rico Munn for denying MSC's waiver request:
'Is his goal to drive tuition higher? If it is, we're going to fight with him. He's saying he wants us to submit a plan that would raise tuition more than 9 percent,' Foster said.
Well, that's what the state law requires the college to do if it intends to raise tuition beyond the 9 percent level specified in SB 3. President Foster may have a point about trying to forecast the college's fiscal needs before a 2011 state budget is put forth, but he's also trying to have his cake and eat it too. If he's so intent on keeping any tuition increase below the 9 percent ceiling, then perhaps he should have done what Mines did and not submitted a plan at all.

Perhaps feeling the need to clarify his position in a friendlier local forum, President Foster spoke with Emily Anderson of the Sentinel for a story published last Friday. He is apparently concerned about the impact an arbitrary increase figure would have on the attractiveness of his institution to prospective students:
"I could say 9.1 percent. It would be bogus, but I could say it. The danger of throwing around speculative numbers is it scares kids away".  
I would hope that equal, if not more, concern is being paid to those students already enrolled at Mesa, and who are looking at this uncertainty in the cost of their education with a wary eye as well.

KREX provided President Foster a little more of a bully pulpit last Thursday:


I believe that President Foster makes good points about what could very well be a convoluted first dive into a process that could negatively impact the state-run education system in Colorado for years to come. His stance is, at the risk of sounding trite, maverick in nature. 

However, I hope that his stance doesn't blow up in the face of not only those who have to foot the bill down the road, but those who could suffer from severe cuts in programs and services at the college if it is not permitted to offset losses in state funding with reasonable increases in tuition. To quote Scott Glenn's character in The Hunt for Red October, "the hard part about playing chicken is knowing when to flinch".

I also hope that our local commercial media will dig deeper into these issues in the future, instead of just blindly obeying a seemingly unwritten commandment, "thou shalt not be critical of Mesa State". As citizens, taxpayers, and media consumers, we deserve the Paul Harvey treatment when it comes to issues like this.

For example, I would have liked to see some comment about President Foster's stance from State Senator and Mesa State alumni Josh Penry, who co-sponsored Senate Bill 3.
The rest of the story, please...

This may also be an opportunity for the self-described "voice of the students", the Mesa State Criterion, to step up and report on something that literally impacts every MSC student. The Crite, apparently under fire for some of its recent editorial content, could help to recover some of its prior greatness by taking on issues like this one and digging in.  

On a somewhat related note, this is the first post where I have linked to a Daily Sentinel story that is behind their subscription paywall. While I understand and share the frustration of those who are not subscribers and may consider the link useless, I feel it's important to allow everyone quick access to content relevant to the post, whether you're a subscriber or not. The Sentinel does offer the option to purchase a one-day subscription, should you find the content important enough to you to want to do that.

Have a good week ahead.

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