Idaho colleges reduce tuition increase proposals

Idaho college students could get a break, sort of, in paying for their education next school year.

Tuition still is likely to go up, but more slowly than in recent years. The State Board of Education sent a message to Idaho’s three state-run universities that it has little appetite for the larger increases of the past. Last year, tuition rose 5.5 percent at Boise State University, 4 percent at the University of Idaho and 3.5 percent at Idaho State University for a full-time undergraduate Idaho resident. The year before, tuition rose nearly as fast.

A board committee suggested to colleges that increase above the 3.5 percent range might not go far as concern about affordability increases.

“It’s the cost of education to our kids,” Rod Lewis, chairman of the board’s Business Administration and Human Resources Committee, told the Idaho Statesman. “It’s the concern about ability to financially undertake those costs, a desire to maintain access.”

The universities responded by proposing increases of 3.5 percent or less. That’s still more than twice the rate of inflation, which was 1.6 percent in 2014.

Boise State’s proposed 3.5 percent increase — $234 a year for a full-time Idaho undergraduate student — will give students some relief, said student Megan Buxton, 23, speaker of the Boise State General Assembly.

“I think the 3.5 percent allows for more students to view their education as affordable,” Buxton said. “I think the student body will swallow the pill of a tuition increase a little bit better than if it was a higher percentage.”

Lewis said the board has asked universities to look more closely at their costs. Boise State is doing that, scrutinizing programs’ effectiveness and redirecting funds from majors such as history, where enrollment has decreased.

“We can’t just go back to the tuition increase barrel,” said Marty Schimpf, Boise State’s provost and vice president for academic affairs.

The universities have used tuition increases to help finance expanded offerings. But next school year, most of the revenue from higher tuition and fees will go pay for raises for school faculty and staff members whose raises aren’t paid for by the state. Lawmakers planned a 3 percent pay increase for state employees for the fiscal year that begins July 1 but didn’t provide funds for raises for about half the workers at the three universities and Lewis-Clark State College.

The Idaho State Board of Education will meet April 15 and 16 at the University of Idaho in Moscow and will set tuition and fees.

End of hefty increases?

Over the last 15 years, most schools have sought increases ranging from 4 percent to 12 percent annually to cover expenses and growth. Increases persisted through the Great Recession even as many businesses in the private sector were cutting expenses and budgets.

An Idaho Statesman investigation last fall found that between 1993 and 2014, tuition and fees for state undergraduate students rose 348 percent at Boise State University, while consumer prices increased 65 percent. At the University of Idaho, tuition and fees went up 375 percent. At Idaho State University, they rose 343 percent.

Much of Boise State University’s transformation to a regional research university was paid for by tuition and fee increases, including construction costs for many buildings that were not covered by the state.

Tuition and fees have risen annually at Idaho’s public colleges for more than two decades while the board, the governor’s office and the Legislature did little to stop them.

Schools defended the increases, saying the state was shirking its responsibility to keep pace with higher education funding. Between 1980 and and 2014, state support for higher education dropped from 93 percent of the higher education budget to about half. Similar cuts happened in other states.

Colleges also say Idaho’s average tuition is still a bargain compared with 15 neighboring Western states.

But Idaho also has among the lowest wages in the country. In 2012, Idaho led the nation with a highest percentage of minimum-wage workers — 7.7 percent of the workforce.

Every tuition increase is approved by the State Board of Education, whose members are appointed by the governor.

As tuition rose, so did student debt and loan defaults. In 2013, Boise State’s average student debt among graduating seniors was $27,948. Idaho State’s was $25,847 and the University of Idaho’s was $25,691 .

In the past couple of years, some State Board of Education members raised concerns that students were hitting a financial wall.

Tuition disconnect

“We’ve become increasingly concerned about the gap in expectations between where the universities are coming from and the expectations of the board members,” Lewis said.

At typical tuition-setting meetings of the board, colleges will make their pitch for money. Student leaders will often add their support. A few board members may grouse about shifting ever more of the cost of education onto the backs of students. Then they give the schools most of what they seek.

The disconnect between board members and universities showed itself at last April’s fee hearing, when Boise State University sought a 6.1 percent tuition and fee increase.

Lewis, a former Micron Technology Inc. general counsel and a board member for 15 years, argued that such a rise sent the wrong message to lawmakers already facing criticism for not doing more to support higher education. Lewis told fellow board members that lawmakers would respond, “You are just going to increase the fees they way you have in the past anyway.”

When then-outgoing board member Milford Terrill suggested students had financial aid to help covering college costs, Lewis replied: “Financial aid is alive. It comes in the form of debt.”

Board members cut Boise State’s request to 5.5 percent.

For this year, the board is seeking to avoid those public moments by holding meetings and engaging the schools in discussions about tuition before April’s fee-setting votes. If this process works, the meetings may become a regular part of the fee-setting process, Lewis said.

How schools will cope

Besides lower tuition increases, Boise State is facing a projected 1 percent decline in undergraduate enrollment next fall. This year, it counts 19,300 students.

The university plans to cut funds to academic departments from tuition and state appropriations by 1 percent, and to nonacademic departments by 3 percent.

Boise State proposes next year to eliminate adjunct professors – who are not employees and who work under contract – in its history department. It also proposes to cut two history lecturers in 2016-2017. These moves will save $100,000 a year.

The university will ask the State Board this month to allow the elimination of the Community and Regional Planning program, whose enrollment has failed to meet expectations. That will save about $560,000 per year.

Some of the savings will be redirected to programs that are growing or to meet other expenses, such as the new College of Innovation and Design, which has a $400,000 startup cost next school year.

Boise State must also assume about $800,000 in faculty salary costs in its materials science doctoral program. The program was launched in 2012 with a $13 million grant from the Micron Foundation. But now those dollars are winding down.

Students could feel the pinch in unexpected ways. For example, tightening expenses will lead to fewer students in mechanical engineering, which enrolls 600 to 700 students, said Schimpf. Some students may not be able to get seats in upper-division courses they need, because the training is expensive and the school isn’t permitted to charge a differential rate for more expensive classes, Schimpf said.

“We may or may not be able to let you in,” he said. “It forces us to make some tough decisions.”