A Buck Passed

Yesterday, the WVU Board of Governors voted to raise tuition costs another 5%. In addition, housing and dining plans are being raised 3.5%. This is just another chapter in a nationwide, 15-year trend of drastically increasing prices for students of higher education.

Administrators here and around the country throw up their hands and say, “What can we do? If the state continues budget cuts for universities, the students have to make up the difference!” At yesterday’s Board of Governor’s meeting, President Gordon Gee exemplified the notion in his speech:

“When people talk about the fact that they’re not raising taxes. I think they are raising taxes and they’re raising it many times on the most vulnerable people, our students who are trying to get ahead in the world and so I find that disturbing,” Gee told the assembly.  The direct implication here is that taxes weren't raised for West Virginians, but because of the budget cuts that made that possible, students and their families are picking up the tab.

This is only half of the story.

Tuition hikes are almost always several times higher than the budget cuts they claim to be addressing, and this year is no different.

Common $ense Math

WVU’s tuition revenue for 2017 was about $400 million. (Tuition accounts for less than half of the University’s total revenue, but that is another matter altogether.) A tuition increase of 5% means a revenue increase of about $20 million. The state budget cuts were only 8.7 million.

To reiterate: This year’s tuition increase was 150% larger than the state’s budget cuts.

This is a repeating occurrence for WVU, and the gap between the two totals is usually even larger. In 2002 and 2004, the increases were twice as high – about 10%. In 2006, the state did not cut WVU’s budget at all, yet tuition increased 7.5%. And so on through 2017.

Contrary to popular belief, WVU had planned a 5% tuition increase for this year long before the state budget was ever being discussed. (The refusal of the University to release this year’s tuition costs until the state budget was finalized was merely to determine whether they were going to increase tuition more than 5%.)

At yesterday’s Board of Governor’s meeting, WVU’s assistant vice president of finance, Anjali Halabe, tried to placate the crowd. “Our institutional financial support to the students will also increase by an equal amount, which is 5 percent.” But this is slightly disingenuous. When I spoke with Halabe earlier today, she made clear that financial support to the students will not increase by an equal amount, but only by an equal percentage. Which comes out to about 6 million dollars.

In other words, less than a third of the $20 million tuition hike will be matched, and only for students who can academically (or demographically) compete for scholarships.

Investing in Dystopia

When students (and sometimes faculty) gripe about the ever-increasing tuition costs, the usual response is that WVU is on par with other universities in this respect. “Everyone else is doing it, too.” And that much is true.

According to the West Virginia Center on Budget and Policy, state funding to colleges and universities has decreased 22% between 2002 and 2015. But in the same period, tuition rates skyrocketed 62% - a massive difference that outstripped inflation by 150%.

Granted, much of the additional income provided by tuition is needed for maintenance. As the new $88 million Agriculture Sciences Building prepared for dedication last year, all 94 locks in the Life Sciences building were being replaced at a cost of $162,500 (about $1,700 per lock). Students living in 52-year-old Summit Hall will have new closets and doors this semester at a cost of $1.1 million (about $2,000 per resident, or 13% of the entire state budget cuts for the year).

Maintenance of a university is expensive. Budgets are very complicated issues, and I do not wish to oversimplify them. But the cost of higher education for students may approaching unsustainable levels. If the debt burden on new students continues to grow disproportionately to budget cuts, the state (and the country) could be in for a much more dangerous scenario than the austerity of any one legislature.

Perhaps worse, people in states like WV – where 25% of students are the first generation in their family to attend college – may decide that higher education is just not worth it.