Tuition


I repeat myself, intentionally:

In a column several weeks ago, when the General Assembly was in session, I mentioned sharing a luncheon table with a university official, a vice president for advancement — he’s a fund-raiser, put plainly; a lobbyist for his campus, put bluntly.

What’s the tuition outlook? I asked, already knowing the answer. He smiled, a little. He allowed that it was wait-and-see: wait for the legislature to write a budget, then see what to do about it.

He meant wait for the lawmakers to flatline higher education, or add a percent or three for inflation, then see the trustees raise tuition.

There was no nail-biting suspense. There was no suspense, period. The political dynamic of the session — a quid pro agreement between Governor Beebe and the Republican legislative leadership — already was in motion and, indeed, gathering momentum: an expansion of health insurance coverage (in the “private option” incarnation of “Obamacare”) in exchange for scores of millions of dollars in tax reduction.

The wait produced both: a broadening of medical coverage for the low-income and a lowering of tax rates, mostly for the affluent. A deal’s a deal.

The see we are seeing now: in the University of Arkansas system, requests for tuition increases ranging from the two-year Morrilton campus’s bid for 1.8 percent more to Pine Bluff’s 4.9 percent to Fort Smith’s ten percent. (The requests do not include any increases in mandatory fees, such as, and particularly, athletics — but that’s another column).

Institutions and their satellite campuses outside the UA system — ASU, UCA, SAU, among them — have, or almost certainly will, follow suit.

Higher ed in Arkansas is always captive to the needs of other General Fund agencies and programs — public schools, Medicaid and prisons, mostly — which for continuing operations have first claim, traditionally and now even legally, to the taxpayer dollar. In straightened times, especially, it is the colleges and universities that see their appropriations held to an absolute minimum in order to make more space for inmates, avoid curtailing one or another medical program for the indigent and to keep the schools functioning at a constitutionally acceptable level. The resulting squeeze has kept faculty salaries at a regional low (and encouraged defections among the most talented to better-paying states), limited programs and, of course, pushed tuition steadily higher. (Full disclosure: I keep company with a UA system professor).

Those lottery scholarships? Any scholarship is a good thing. But Arkansas lottery proceeds are tapering; the General Assembly slashed by more than half the $4,500 that qualifying first year students will receive come fall. The Higher Education department will reduce by at least two-thirds the number of Governor’s Distinguished Scholarships it will award. Some state campuses will offset the loss to incoming students with individual grants but the sums will not cover the unanticipated loss of scholarship assistance nor the fully anticipated increase in tuition.

The tax cuts enacted by the legislature will, over the next three years, approach $300 million. More than a quarter of the savings will accrue to the wealthiest one percent of Arkansas taxpayers; half will benefit the top five percent. The greatest tax relief, in other words, will go to those who reason suggests are the least impacted by the cost of college.

On the other hand — consider some recent reporting by Time. It’s April 22 issue heralded the rebirth of American manufacturing, a renaissance that has increased the demand for workers but demands of them much more than the ability to turn a wrench.

“Many new manufacturing jobs require at least a two-year tech degree to complement artisan skills such as welding and milling,” the magazine found. “The bar will only get higher. Some experts believe it won’t be too long before employers expect a four-year degree, a job qualification that will eventually be required in many other places around the world, too.

“Understanding this new look is critical if the U.S. wants to nurture manufacturing and grow jobs. There are implications for educators (who must ensure that future workers have the right skills) as well as policymakers (who may have to set new educational standards).”

Setting new, higher standards is, for policy makers, the easy part — the equivalent of turning a wrench. But they must also make those standards attainable, which means affordable.

The UA system’s trustees, mindful not only of the fiscal but the political, have hauled in their chancellors to tell them what they already knew. On May 23 they are to decide, campus-by-campus, tuition for the fall semester. The suspense is bearable.