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Archive for Thursday, May 20, 2004

How much?

May 20, 2004

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Kansas University has a base tuition, but with extra fees proposed by professional schools, most students will end up paying far more for their degrees.

The other shoe just keeps on dropping for students paying tuition at Kansas University.

The 2004-05 academic year is the third step in a five-year plan that will double KU tuition for Kansas residents. Tuition went up about 20 percent this year and will rise another 18 percent next year. Given the decline in state tax support for state universities, KU officials made the case that the five-year tuition increase was necessary to increase faculty salaries, create new faculty positions and cover the increased operating expenses that are part of maintaining the quality of education KU students receive.

Although it was a hard pill for many students and families to swallow, most accepted the rationale and enrollment remained strong.

But along with the hefty increases in base tuition, most schools within the university now are saying they need even more. It's sort of like adding special assessments onto the cost of a home. These schools say they have "special" needs that require "special" funding. The KU business school says it needs to charge its students tuition that's 85 percent above the base rate. Like a good business person, the business dean contends the return on students' investment will justify the additional expense.

The business school isn't the only one pursuing tuition "differentials." The schools of engineering, law, pharmacy and architecture already have higher tuition rates, but are asking for an even higher differential next year. The schools of fine arts, journalism and education are asking for new fees. Only the schools of liberal arts and sciences and social welfare would offer classes at the base tuition rate, and you have to think they soon will be joining the crowd.

The main attraction of these fees is that the money stays with the school and doesn't go into the overall university budget. Although a certain amount of creative self-interest may be healthy, the use of differential tuition may be a negative trend.

The differential applies only to credit hours in the respective schools. A business major wouldn't pay the differential on an English class, but an English major would pay it on a business class. So the idea of "base tuition" really would mean very little. Almost every KU student would be paying a different tuition based on the various extra fees attached to each class he or she was taking.

That makes it particularly difficult for KU officials to continue to tout KU tuition as a bargain compared with other universities in the region or peers throughout the country. A chart on KU's Web site says that resident tuition and fees at KU are $4,101 a year. That compares favorably with the University of Nebraska at $4,771, Iowa at $4,993 and Missouri at $6,558. But the KU figure is only base tuition of $117 per hour plus $287 a semester in student fees. It doesn't take very many business classes at $213 an hour or even architecture, education or fine arts hours at $153 apiece to make a big difference in a student's tuition bill.

It's understandable that university officials, as well as deans of schools within the university, are frustrated with the level of funding they are receiving from the state. It's also understandable that schools want to do what they can to increase the quality of their faculty and course offerings and, therefore, the quality and prestige of the degrees they offer. But tacking on fees that raise the cost of course hours in certain schools to levels that are 28 percent to 85 percent above base tuition is a bad precedent.

Not only does it create a chaotic tuition system that could discourage students from taking classes in certain disciplines, it also raises the overall tuition bill for all KU students. The system seems a bit like a city government that touts a stable property tax rate while doubling fees for water, trash removal or other services. The money may have different names, but it all comes out of the same pockets.

As with all of the recent tuition increases, KU officials are careful to stipulate that some of the additional revenue would go to increase student financial aid. While that's helpful, it won't benefit many students whose academic records or financial need don't qualify them for assistance.

Higher education doesn't have to be a bargain, but, especially at a state university, it should be affordable for about everyone who's academically qualified. Multiple tuition increases from multiple sources at KU seem to be chipping away at that accessibility.

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