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Archive for Friday, March 4, 2005

Tapped out

Officials must balance the financial needs of Kansas University against the financial means of students and their families who are paying tuition.

March 4, 2005

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No matter how well the money will be spent or how the plan is structured, there is a limit to how much students can be expected to pay for their education at Kansas University.

It's gratifying, therefore, to see a couple of instances this week in which KU administrators are recognizing the need to control tuition increases.

Over the last several years, KU officials have built a strong case for increases including a five-year plan that is in the process of doubling base tuition at the university. The increases were needed, they showed, to retain KU faculty members and make up for declines in state funding. To help build their case, they said a sizable portion of the increase would be dedicated to financial aid for students and provided figures showing KU's tuition continued to be a bargain compared to similar schools.

All true. But the money still is coming from the pockets of students and their families who may or may not be able to handle the additional cost. A recent study on minority student retention, for instance, noted that the inability to pay for school long enough was a key reason minority students left KU before completing a degree.

On top of the base tuition increases, the school has increased its use of "differential" tuition, per-hour charges added to tuition in some academic schools to pay for specialized equipment or instruction. Again, it may be justifiable, it may benefit students, but someone has to pay.

This week, however, the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences acknowledged the message sent to it by a student survey that basically said "enough is enough," when it comes to tuition increases. The College had proposed charging an extra $30 per credit hour (phased in over three years) to pay for the renovation of several buildings, not teachers or equipment, but buildings. In an online survey, just 29 percent of KU students said they were in favor of the surcharge. One wonders if the percentage would have been even lower if parents had been surveyed.

To their credit, officials of the College responded to the student input by taking the tuition surcharge off the table, at least for now.

Another tuition proposal that received some positive attention from KU administrators this week was the idea of locking in tuition rates for entering freshman so their tuition wouldn't rise for the four, five or six years normally required to complete their degree program. The model was proposed by Student Body President Steve Munch as a way to make tuition costs more predictable and perhaps encourage more students to complete degrees within four years.

Munch's draft plan doesn't deal with differential tuition, but he's aware that issue must be addressed so that additional per-hour charges don't undercut the benefits of locking in a tuition rate.

KU officials have made a good case for the tuition increases that have occurred, but just because the money is being spent for laudable purposes doesn't justify continued increases that could endanger the affordability of a university education for many students. Plans to put the brakes on the liberal arts fee and consider locking in tuition rates for incoming freshmen indicate that university officials have some recognition of the obligation to balance KU's needs against the needs of the students and families who are paying those tuition rates.

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