Boise State University

As Boise State grows, students face rising tuition and debt. Is BSU still affordable?

Students contributed nearly $20 million to help build the Micron Business and Economics Building, which features an expansive lobby and fireplace, as well as many modern amenities.
Students contributed nearly $20 million to help build the Micron Business and Economics Building, which features an expansive lobby and fireplace, as well as many modern amenities.

Students seeking to better themselves educationally face ever-rising tuition and debt. Boise State University says it needs their money to improve the university as state funding shrivels. Idaho Statesman reporter Bill Roberts talked to students, university President Bob Kustra and others involved in funding higher education in Idaho about the bind that sends tuition ever upward. This report, “The Tuition Trap,” was published in October 2014.

Every January, Idaho universities and lawmakers do a college-funding dance. University presidents come before the legislative budget committee seeking more money. Sometimes they get it. Sometimes they don’t.

Either way, schools then go to the State Board of Education to ask for tuition increases, which boost the price of a college education in a low-wage state.

As Boise State University spent millions to get bigger and better over the past decade, state support for college students fell. Nationally, support fell from an average of $8,579 per full-time-equivalent student in 1988 to $6,105 in 2013, based on 2013 inflation-adjusted dollars, according to the State Higher Education Executive Officers Association. That’s a drop of 29 percent.

Net tuition, the amount students pay after state public aid and university tuition discounts, rose to $5,475 per full-time-equivalent student nationwide from $2,685 in 1988 (also in 2013 dollars), said the Colorado-based association, which advocates for state policy leadership on higher education. That’s a 104 percent increase.

In Idaho, during the same years, the college population more than doubled to 57,837, much of it from growth at Boise State. State support dropped 43 percent to $6,013, and net tuition increased 123 percent to $3,610.

“States have not been able to keep up with the rapid increase in enrollment in terms of providing support,” said George Pernsteiner, president of the association.

Legislative balancing act

Nationally, legislatures face conflicting priorities. They’ve felt unrelenting pressure to pour more money into public education and Medicaid. When their economies weaken, revenues fall, as they did during the Great Recession.

When financial times got tough, “we have used higher education as a checkbook,” said state Rep. Maxine Bell, R-Jerome, one of two co-chairmen of the Legislature’s budget committee.

Idaho lawmakers are gradually but steadily withdrawing support for higher education, said Bob Kustra, the Boise State president. Boise State’s appropriation fell from $87.6 million in 2009 to $67.1 million in 2012. In all, lawmakers trimmed higher-ed spending by 26 percent between 2010 and 2012.

“(Idaho is) way up at the top as one of those that’s been cut the worst,” Kustra said.

State Sen. Dean Cameron, R-Rupert, the other legislative budget committee co-chairman, defended the Legislature’s record. For the past 22 years, the Legislature increased funding to higher education in all but four years — including the three immediately after the Great Recession, which began in December 2007 and technically ended in June 2009, though Idaho’s jobless rate kept rising through January 2010.

But the state was slow to recover from those cuts. It took four years before the Legislature fully restored higher education cuts made in 2003. After cutting in 2010, 2011 and 2012, lawmakers began increasing funding in 2013 but had yet to return to the 2009 high of $285.2 million.

Diminished taxpayer support

Idaho taxpayers’ overall commitment to higher education, however, has been on a 38-year slide based on the percentage of personal income appropriated from the state general fund for higher education.

“We are putting less of our resources into that particular function,” said Mike Ferguson, a former chief state economist who until recently directed the Idaho Center for Fiscal Policy, a nonprofit that researches state tax policy and budget issues. “What we have is a conscious or subconscious decision to essentially shift the burden of funding our public institutions of higher education off the general taxpayer.”

BSU students pile on debt

And along with that goes a rapidly rising default rate among graduates.

Rising tuition and fees at Boise State University received little attention for years. It was a part of doing business. But as rising student debt loads and tuition and fees show no sign of leveling off, some students are hitting the affordability wall.

Among Boise State alumni who began repaying loans in 2011, 11.4 percent had defaulted within three years, compared with 7.8 percent for borrowers who began repaying in 2009. Default rates also rose at the University of Idaho and Idaho State University.

Until recently, when rising tuition and fees seemed to hit a critical mass, legislatures and higher education weren’t under much political pressure to keep tuition and fees low, said Andy Carlson, the senior policy analyst for the State Higher Education Executive Officers Association.

Cameron said the system is out of control, and it is time for legislators to scrutinize more closely how they pay for higher education.

“We should be looking at ways to lower tuition,” he said.

Burden on students

Kennia Carpinteyro, a Boise State student who wants to be a teacher, said the burden of paying for college worries her.

“The increase in Boise State’s tuition every year is kind of heartbreaking,” she said. “Because as a student, not only do you have to worry about your grades and your classes, you also have to try to worry about where that money is going to come from.”

Jordan Kiler, a Boise resident who graduated from Boise State this year with a degree in exercise science, is feeling the sting. He owes $15,000 on student loans and expects to borrow more so he can go to a school that will help him become a physical therapist.

“Maybe you are borrowing the same amount of money, but you have to pay off more now,” he said.

Boise State led Idaho’s three universities in the average student debt among borrowers in the class of 2012. Its student debt is equal to 93 percent of the national average for the class of 2012, according to the Institute for College Access and Success, a Washington, D.C.-based organization that works to make college more available and affordable.

At Boise State, 64 percent of 2012 graduates had some form of debt, a figure that has changed little over the past five years. Idaho State University tied with Boise State at 64 percent. At the University of Idaho, it’s 66 percent.

Between 2008 and 2012, average student debt among borrowers rose 30 percent at Boise State, 5 percentage points more than the national average.

The debt loads can limit graduates’ possibilities for their futures. Some national indicators suggest students with high debt may postpone buying a home.

A prospective teacher such as Carpinteyro, who wants to work with English-language learners, may find loan payments harder to make than students who enter higher-paying professions. Beginning teacher salaries in Idaho will be $31,750 in 2014-15, up from $31,000 last school year.

“It’s going to be hard trying to pay back my loans,” Carpinteyro said. “Going into this major, a lot of us know we are not going to make a lot of money but the thing that we do is what we love.”

Kiler does not know how much debt he’ll owe by the time he’s done.

“I think just how much I pay back and what I have set up to pay monthly can affect where I work,” he said. “I want to work in a job that pays a little bit more.”

As cost soars, students flock to BSU

The school’s tuition is relatively low compared with those of public colleges in other states.

Idaho colleges, including Boise State, boast that their tuition is still a bargain.

Idaho’s four-year schools had the seventh-lowest average tuition among all states in 2013-14, according to the College Board. Their average undergraduate tuition is in the middle among 15 Western states, according to the Western Interstate Commission on Higher Education.

But cost must be compared to affordability. Idaho ranks second from the bottom, ahead of only South Dakota, among the 15 Western states in its average income of $38,840 and its median income of $30,326, according to 2013 U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics data. Median income means half the state’s workers earn more and half earn less.

Moreover, Idaho’s workforce earned the dubious recognition of having the highest percentage of workers in the country — 7.7 percent — earning minimum wage in 2012.

Earning minimum wage, Idaho undergraduate students would have to work 860 hours — more than 40 percent of a work year — to pay for the average year of tuition and fees at an Idaho four-year university. Among the Western states, Arizona is the highest, at 1,269 hours. New Mexico is the lowest, at 688 hours.

If their parents can help, they would have to work 427 hours, based on the state’s median wage, to pay for the average year of tuition and fees at an Idaho four-year university. That’s right in the middle of the pack of 15 states. Arizona is the highest, at 610 hours. Wyoming is the lowest, at 247 hours.

Boise State University’s tuition growth far outpaced the state’s wage growth between 2004 and 2012. Average wages went up 22 percent, to $36,912, according to the Bureau of Economic Analysis, which calculates income differently than the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Tuition and fees increased 67 percent, to $5,884.

“We are not as affordable and low-cost as we’d like to think we are,” said Brian Greber, a Boise State adjunct economics professor.

Bob Kustra, Boise State University’s president, makes no excuses for the school’s tuition.

“We feel very good about the fact that we are delivering quality and value for the cost of tuition,” he said. “I am not willing to buy the argument that just because we are a low-income state that we have to hold tuition exactly to that level.”

Students keep coming

Despite rising tuition and fees, students in Idaho and elsewhere still flock to colleges to get a degree — the pathway, they’ve been told, to an economically successful life.

A 2014 report in the New York Federal Reserve Bank newsletter said an average college graduate earns more than $1 million more in salary during a lifetime than an average high school graduate does.

Between 1988 and 2012, the number of students in college rose from about 7.2 million to 11.2 million.

In many ways, Kustra has few signals that tell him to ease off on tuition and fee increases. In June, Boise State applications were up to 7,912, an 11.6 percent increase over 2013.

“I think it is the footprints of the parents and the students that are doing the talking here,” Kustra said.

BSU tuition: Higher and higher?

Some state board members think the school asks for too much, but Kustra said it’s the Legislature’s responsibility.

For more than two decades, Boise State University has raised the amount students and their families must pay to get an education. A year’s tuition at Boise State cost $3,520 in 2004. It cost $6,640 in 2014.

But Boise State didn’t do it alone.

Tuition increases must be approved each April by the State Board of Education, which is appointed by the governor. So must virtually every new building and program.

In a typical April meeting, Boise State and the other schools make their pitches for higher tuition. Often, student leaders add their support. Some board members may grouse about shifting more of the cost of education onto the backs of students. Then they give the schools most of what they seek.

Board members say that the universities have made compelling cases for more money. They need to remain competitive with other universities and attract top talent. As Kustra sought to build Boise State into a regional research university, proposing new buildings and graduate programs, the board complied.

Kustra did what he was asked, board member says ...

Kustra was hired to raise the level of BSU’s quality of education, said Rod Lewis, a former general counsel for Micron Technology Inc. who is the State Board of Education’s senior member.

“My view is that what’s happened at BSU is very positive, and the growth it has experienced in research and academically (and) structurally has really had the net effect we had hoped for, which is to take BSU to the next level,” Lewis said.

But at April’s tuition hearing, Lewis and fellow board member Don Soltman were concerned. Soltman, a retired hospital administrator living in Moscow, told the Idaho Statesman weeks before the hearing that he had heard anecdotally that tuition was pricing some students out of Idaho schools.

Lewis objected to Boise State University’s request for a 6.1 percent tuition increase in 2014-15, since the state was proposing a more than 6 percent boost in higher education funding statewide at the same time.

Board member Milford Terrell, the owner of DeBest Plumbing & Mechanical in Boise, backed Boise State’s request. He said the additional tuition and fees were needed to assure the university would get the best professors and provide the best education. Students can afford the tuition increase because they get financial aid, said Terrell, who retired from the board in June.

“Financial aid is alive,” Lewis replied. “It comes in the form of debt.”

... but the same member objected to BSU’s latest increase

Total financial aid to students skyrocketed between 2003-04 and 2012-13 from $77 million to $154.8 million, a jump of 101 percent.

Loans, mostly federal, made up 60 percent of total aid in 2012-13, about the same share as they held 10 years earlier. The number of students receiving aid increased from 12,226 to 14,841, a rise of 17.1 percent, though the percentage of all students receiving aid remained about 65 percent.

The percentages do not include private loans made to students or families outside the university’s student-loan system, which Boise State says it cannot track.

And in 2012, Boise State graduates who borrowed money averaged more than $27,000 in debt.

Lewis said a large tuition increase sends a bad message to the Legislature. Lawmakers are criticized when funding for higher education slips, forcing students to pay more, he said. If schools continue to seek large increases when the state delivers more money, lawmakers will say “you are just going to increase the fees the way you have in the past anyway,” Lewis said.

Legislator calls hike ‘unreasonable’

That’s just how Sen. Dean Cameron, a co-chairman of the legislative budget committee, said he took Boise State’s request this year.

“I said, ‘You have got to be freaking kidding me,” Cameron told the Statesman. “I think it is unrealistic and unreasonable.

“It is frustrating. In the Legislature and in the budget committee, we have education funding as a high priority. We gave higher education as good of an increase as they had in a long time this year. Yet they still went forward and asked for a tuition increase. It seems to be a system with very little checks and balances.”

Kustra bristles at Cameron’s response. After Kustra’s presentation to the legislative budget committee earlier this year, Kustra said, Cameron complimented him on his presentation.

“Senator Cameron apparently speaks with forked tongue,” Kustra told the Statesman. “Dean Cameron had the entire legislative year to tell me to my face or in any other way he chose why he thought I was being disingenuous, why he thought I was asking for more than Boise State deserved, and he didn’t say a word.”

Kustra said he had not decided at the time of that hearing how much more tuition Boise State would request for the 2014-15 school year.

At the April meeting, the State Board of Education did what it usually does, giving Boise State and the other schools most or all of their requested amounts.

The board trimmed Boise State’s request to 5.5 percent, pushing tuition and fees up $348 a year. Lewis and Soltman voted against the lower amount as well.

Will tuition increases ever stop?

Other states have sought to break the cycle. Montana lawmakers and higher education institutions struck a deal to freeze tuition for two years while the Legislature and governor raise funding to cover inflation and increase faculty salaries. The ballpark cost for the 2013-15 agreement: about $50 million.

Kustra said Boise State is looking into raising tuition every two years, instead of annually, to help families better plan college costs.

But how does that help people such as Kennia Carpinteyro, an education major who is $19,000 in debt and likely to take on more? What would she say to Kustra?

“The thought I would like to leave to whoever is in charge is to recognize that the students who want to be there are trying to be able to graduate to have a good job, but if they keep on putting tuition higher and higher each year, it makes it difficult on us,” she said.

Asked how he would answer Carpinteyro and other students, Kustra said: Tell the Legislature.

“First of all, I would say to her that I hope that as a citizen she will pay close attention to what’s going on in her state government wherever she lives,” Kustra said. “I hope that she can play some role in reversing the decision by the states to withdraw from the funding of public universities and colleges as it once ... was.

“We need graduates who are willing to say, ‘Look, this cost me more money than it should, and I regret that, and I’d like you, my state legislator, to go off to the state legislature next time and make that case.”

Kustra: Cameron being a politician

Here is Boise State President Bob Kustra’s complete response to state Sen. Dean Cameron’s criticism of the school’s proposed 6.1 percent tuition increase for the 2014-15 school year:

“Senator Cameron apparently speaks with forked tongue. Because I’m the guy who gave the presentation on behalf of Boise State at JFAC [the Joint Finance Appropriations Committee, which recommends state appropriations].

“You know the routine. Every president stands up there and for a half-hour delivers the presentation and then is grilled for the next half-hour. On more than one occasion, both on that day and afterwards when we went to lunch, I was complimented by Dean Cameron for the fine presentation I gave on behalf of Boise State.

“Dean Cameron had the entire legislative year to tell me to my face or in any other way he chose why he thought I was being disingenuous, why he thought I was asking for more than Boise State deserved, and he didn’t say a word. To the contrary, I was complimented over and over again immediately after the presentation at the stand where he sits.

“So I don’t understand why he talks to a reporter one way and talks to a university president the other. But that is what happened. I guess if he knows you are doing the story that is all about trying to attack the tuition model, then what is a public official likely to do? He is going to play right into your hands, and he did an excellent job of it.

“But it isn’t what I heard from him last legislative session.”