Every year, when Boise State University announces a new tuition increase, it adds to Cydney Jackson’s stress.
Jackson, a 22-year-old elementary education major, already has $25,000 in student debt and must put herself through two more years before she graduates.
If she knew what the tuition was going to be or, even better, that it wouldn’t go up every year, it would “cause a lot less financial stress on me.”
Her friend, Megan Graviet, a 21-year-old English education major, understands Jackson’s angst. Graviet pays for school by working as many as 45 hours a week as a restaurant server while taking a full-time college load.
“Having to predict what they are going to raise the tuition to every year is a little bit terrifying,” she said.
Jackson and Graviet are caught in a two-decade-long trend of annual college tuition increases at Idaho’s four-year institutions. Tuition grew 65 percent at Boise State University between 2007 and 2016, to $6,876.
THE KEY TO ‘TUITION LOCK’
To get more college-educated students into the workforce and to interject some consistency into families’ tuition planning, Gov. Butch Otter is proposing a “tuition lock” to guarantee qualifying freshmen the same tuition for four years. He approached the schools and the State Board of Education with the idea a few months ago.
A tuition lock would provide “an incentive for timely completion of a degree or professional certification program,” Otter said as he announced an ambitious education agenda in his State of the State speech Monday.
How many students is Otter talking about? At Boise State alone, for example, a little more than 1,300 degree-seeking Idaho freshmen enrolled in fall 2015.
But within a few days, opposition from a couple of key legislators hinted that Otter’s plan may not move forward smoothly. And researchers elsewhere say that tuition lock can help families plan for college costs, but also can push tuition higher as colleges raise future rates to make up what they lose during the guaranteed years.
“I think it is still just a scheme for raising as much revenue as you can,” said Joni Finney, a University of Pennsylvania professor of higher education who researches college finances.
Maxine Bell, co-chair of the Legislature’s budget committee, is troubled by the proposal that would require lawmakers to fill the gap between what it costs to educate students on the guaranteed tuition plan and what the school takes in.
“I think it’s a very a foolish commitment,” she said. “You don’t have any certainty as to what you are committing in something like that.”
The best the Legislature can do, she said, is “adequately fund higher education so they can hold the tuition as basic as possible.”
But that’s a strategy that has led to nonstop annual increases, the Jerome Republican acknowledges.
“I can tell you from my records that the years I could not fund them adequately, they raised tuition; the years I funded them more adequately, they raised tuition,” she said.
Star Rep. Mike Moyle, the House majority leader, opposes the tuition lock and sides with researchers who say it could actually lead to higher rates.
Rep. Reed DeMordaunt, House Education Committee chairman, likes the plan and says it gives parents and students some predictability. “I think it’s great for families. It allows them to know exactly what it is going to cost,” said DeMordaunt, R-Eagle.
Academic experts are less enthusiastic.
Finney, the Pennsylvania professor, said such plans dole out some help to students, but there is little about them that pushes universities to increase productivity or lower costs. “Everyone has to have some skin in the game,” Finney said.
Colleges using the tuition lock approach should commit to increased efficiency and productivity, such as eliminating duplicate programs or guarding against mission creep — where universities keep moving into new areas, such as the rush to become a research university, Finney said.
The most effective way to control tuition, Finney said, is to tie increases to median family income. That links tuition to what families can afford. When wages rise, tuition increases. And tuition remains the same even if wages drop.
Illinois has had its “Truth in Tuition” program for about a decade. Research there shows that the lock tends to increase tuition over time, occasionally more than a student would have had to pay if they took yearly increases, said Jennifer Delaney, associate professor of higher education at University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign.
Universities tend to be risk-adverse, she said. They push pre-emptively for higher tuition to make up for what they might lose as costs continue to rise in years tuition does not.
Illinois, however, has one distinct difference. The state does not backfill college’s lost revenues, as Otter’s plan proposes to do for Idaho schools.
In the past year, the State Board of Education has clamped down on tuition increases. The board cautioned universities not to propose tuition increases exceeding 3.5 percent. Final tuition increases ranged from 3.5 percent to 1.7 percent.
It was the first time the board directly intervened in tuition requests before the universities show up in April to ask for permission to charge students more dollars.
Despite researchers’ concerns, Idaho’s board does not believe universities would push for more dollars under a tuition lock. If the universities tried, the board would resist, said Blake Youde, its spokesman and legislative affairs officer. Sharply rising tuition would defeat the purpose the lock is trying to achieve, he said.
While lawmakers debate guaranteed tuition, researcher Finney expects it will be popular among families who see it as a better way to plan.
For Jackson, the education major paying her way through BSU, the idea is a winner. Though tuition lock won’t benefit her, it would still help her family.
“My younger sister is going into (Boise State) next fall,” she said. “Knowing that she wouldn’t have to take out as much student loans as I did would just be awesome.”
What would a guaranteed tuition mean?
Here is what resident freshmen in 2013 paid in tuition (not fees) over the past four years. A tuition lock could have kept steady that amount for four years. Guaranteed tuition likely would increase for each new freshman class.
Boise State University
Fourth-year difference: $777.60 more
University of Idaho
Fourth-year difference: $1,129 more
Source: Statesman research
Other college incentives
Idaho’s governor has a three-point plan to encourage more students to go to college. Beside the tuition lock, he seeks:
▪ An increase in the amount of Idaho’s needs-based Opportunity Scholarship annually from $5 million to $10 million. About a third of the 6,000 students who applied this school year were able to get money. Average scholarship was $2,900. Maximum allowed is $3,000.
▪ A Completion Scholarship of up to $3,000 a year, based on financial need, for undergraduate students with some college credit to go back to school to complete their degrees. A student needs to have been out of college for three years.
What about the tuition-cutting initiative?
Backers of an initiative to slash Idaho college tuition by about 22 percent by increasing cigarette and tobacco taxes say Gov. Butch Otter’s plan to guarantee tuition is a good start at getting a handle on rising costs.
“I was really actually happy about it,” said Bill Moran, spokesman for Stop Tuition Hikes.com. But he added: “I don’t think it would make college suddenly affordable in Idaho.”
Moran’s group needs 47,623 signatures by the end of April to get its initiative on the November ballot. So far it’s gathered about 4,200 signatures.
How would a tuition lock work?
Eligibility: Idaho residents entering their freshman year would qualify.
What would be “locked”? Tuition, not student fees.
How long is the guaranteed rate? Four years; the state is looking at exemptions, for instance, for religious and military service and hardship.
What schools would qualify? Boise State University, University of Idaho, Idaho State University and Lewis-Clark State College.
What about community college transfers? A student transferring to a four-year institution as a junior would pay the junior-year rate.