Tuition hikes, budget requests and debates, oh my

Get out your wallets, students. Beginning next fall, a 10 percent tuition increase will go into effect for most University of Alaska campuses. The motion on the hotly debated topic passed with a 7-3 vote by the Board of Regents at its Nov. 12 meeting in Anchorage, but not without some passionate opinions being aired and surprise twists to the motion.

 

The students speak

The morning began with Carhartts and backpacks outnumbering freshly pressed suits in the packed meeting room. A total of 11 UA students spoke against the increase during public testimony.

“We love our university…but we can’t afford 10 percent [increase],” Elaine Bialka, a student at the Mat-Su campus, said. “The 10 percent is a big chunk to swallow for us.”

Her sentiments were repeated by several students. UAA’s Ben Garcia was looking for a justification and some accountability from the regents as to where the projected $8.1 million in revenue from the increase would go. Board chair Chancy Croft interjected that UA President Mark Hamilton and the board were under no obligation to specify that information.

“Tuition has never been dedicated revenue,” Croft said

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UAA’s Casey Reynolds challenged the board to show results if the increase was implemented. He said students should see benefits from the increase such as need-based scholarship programs, Ph.D. programs at UAA and ensuring a UA education will be on par with other schools in the Lower 48.

 

The Regents and Hamilton respond

Hamilton began the discussion period of the meeting by reiterating his well known stance in support of the increase.

“Many of you have heard my reasons more times than patience allows,” Hamilton said.

He went on to emphasize how UA compares with national statistics on tuition increases. The national average for tuition increases at U.S. colleges and university last year was 10.5 percent, dropping to 9.6 percent this year. Since 1997 UA has increased tuition a total of 13 percent.

“We are starting from such a remarkably artificially low standard,” Hamilton said. “Ten percent is not only not extraordinary, it is absolutely flat on average,” he said.

Regent Elsa Demeksa was the most vocal regent in opposition. Her primary concerns were how poor students would be able to afford an increase with no need-based scholarships available in Alaska. Demeksa has constantly advocated more financial assistance in the form of need and merit-based scholarships for students. Hamilton, however, views need and merit-based assistance as a concern of the state, not the university.

“Why the university is responsible for need-based scholarships in a state that has $29 billion in the bank is beyond me,” Hamilton said, referring to the permanent fund earnings.

Regent Joe Usibelli, Jr., justified his support of the increase as a business relationship model and a way to increase credibility with the Legislature when lobbying for full funding of the university budget request.

“I think the product we are delivering seems to be of adequate value,” Usibelli said. “As a credibility thing, I think it is appropriate for the student body to cover a share.”

 

Rural campuses get a break

Hamilton also announced two modifications to the motion. He proposed putting to use $500,000 set aside for educating students on financial aid options, as a way to combat the hardship the increase may impose on some students. Additionally, he authorized rural campus directors, which include all campuses except Fairbanks, Anchorage, Juneau and Tanana Valley, to have the discretion of whether they would implement any or all of the increase.

By policy, tuition must increase each year by about 3 percent in response to inflation. Any increase above the 3 percent and up to 10 percent will be decided upon by those campus directors. Hamilton offered this modification in response to the concerns the rural campuses had about the increase and its effects on students that specifically attend those campuses for community college courses and have different financial situations than most students at the three main campuses.

Gary Turner, college director at Kenai Peninsula College, said he has not yet received the official policy from Hamilton, but has already scheduled forums for student, staff and faculty to weigh their opinions. Turner said the students had overwhelmingly expressed opposition to the tuition increase in the weeks before the meeting.

However, he will now spend time educating students on their options of increasing tuition at a lower percentage, while still bringing in additional revenue to the college. Any revenue from tuition increases stays at the individual colleges. Whatever is decided, he thinks the option is a good compromise.

“I’m very pleased I was given that choice,” Turner said. “We get to control our own destiny.”

Additionally, the board moved to not implement a 10 percent tuition increase for 2005. The original motion proposed a 10 percent increase to be implemented in fall 2004, with an additional 10 percent to go into effect fall 2005. Regents decided to consider the additional increase once figures on enrollment are available next year and it can be determined how much, if at all, the increase affected those numbers.

 

The rest of the story – the budget

The meeting continued after lunch on the subject of money once again. Once the regents moved on from the tuition issues, it was time to approve the final drafts of the operating and capital budget requests.

There were few debates throughout the process, although Hamilton is remaining cautiously optimistic amidst the changing tide of a new administration about to be seated in Juneau. He encouraged the regents not to request a politically correct amount, but to decide how much the university needs, and stick to their guns.

“The only thing we know, the only thing we are experts on is what does the University of Alaska need…and how much does that cost,” Hamilton said. “I’m very concerned about playing politics with politicians. Any budget at anytime…is going to be problematic.”

The regents passed a motion approving the operating budget request of $13.5 million in state appropriations, a 6.4 percent increase over last year. They also requested $22 million in receipt authority, or authorization to spend revenues the university receives from other sources such as the federal government, research grants, tuition and the like. The capital budget request was passed at a figure of $42.4 million in state appropriations and $108.5 in receipt authority.

Demeksa and Student Regent Derek Miller were the dissenting votes on the operating budget motion. Demeksa said she voted against the motion because the 10 percent tuition increase was included in that portion of the budget. The capital budget request passed unanimously.

The finalized request will arrive on the governor’s desk on Nov. 20. Gov.-elect Frank Murkowski will consider the request and make the first decisions on it when his proposed statewide budget is revealed on Dec. 15.

In its first but perhaps least controversial piece of business, the regents also unanimously approved the UA Natural Resources Fund budget. This budget is revenue UA receives from its sale of land and resource holdings, such as real estate, timber and minerals. The budget includes designating $2 million for the UA Scholars Program.

 

Student Reactions

Oly Sugay
Year: Freshman
Major: Applied science of computer and network technology
Classes planning on taking in fall 2003 :12 lower division credits
Current cost of fall 2003 tuition: $984
Actual cost after 10 percent increase: $1082

Sugay works a job to pay for his education and supplements with scholarships from Alaska Army National Guard.

“It won’t be a problem for me,” Sugay said. But he said he can see where other students may find the increase a problem. He said he knows many students who work to pay for their tuition and could see where the increase may cause problems or hardships for them.

 

Lynda Hernandez
Year: Junior
Major: Biology with a certificate in applied ethics
Classes planning on taking in fall 2003: 13 upper division credits
Current cost fall 2003 tuition: $1209
Actual cost after 10 percent increase: $1400

Hernandez receives scholarships to pay for her education and anticipates they will be adequate to cover the increase.

“Obviously, I’m not very happy about paying more money.” Hernandez said she will be more agreeable to the increase if she sees tangible improvements at the university after the increase is implemented.

 

Patty Farrow
Year: Sophomore
Major: Psychology
Classes planning on taking in fall 2003: 12 upper division credits
Current cost of fall 2003 tuition: $1116
Actual cost after 10 percent increase: $1227

Farrow pays for her education through savings and student loans. She said she worries about the increase in terms of how her student loan interest will increase when she needs to borrow more, and the fact that it sets students further behind on paying the loans back. She also worries the cost of education is already deceiving in terms of what a graduate thinks they can make at their first job.

“It’s not always a pay off…for what you have to pay and the amount you make when you get out.”

 

David Parks
Year: Junior
Major: political science
Classes taking in Fall 2003: 12 upper division credits
Current cost of fall 2003 tuition: $1116
Actual cost after 10 percent increase: $1227

Parks finances his education through summer earnings, his permanent fund dividend and his stipend as student body president. He takes into account the silver lining of the increase.

“All in all, when we’re investing in our future, $100 is a small amount to pay for the betterment of our future.”