Tuition plateau no more

In a meeting earlier this month, the Oregon State Board ofHigher Education approved tuition plans for 2004-2005, maintainingper-credit rates and extending those rates to students in thetuition plateau at six out of the seven universities, the onlyexception being Western Oregon University.

For PSU undergrads, this means that taking 15 credits will jumpto $1,707, a 19 percent increase from the 2003-2004 price. Studentswhose course loads are not the 15-credit level will not see tuitionincreases.

For graduate students, the plateau has also been dropped.

The change has been widely billed by administrators as a moreequitable way to charge students. Administrators argue that since astudent at PSU taking 8 credits pays $90 a credit, that student issubsidizing a “plateau student” taking 15 credits for the price of12.

More so at PSU than any other Oregon university, tuition moneycomes from part-time students. In winter 2004, 64 percent ofundergrads took 12 credits or less, said Cathy Dyck, associatevice-president for finance and planning.

“Because of our mix of students, PSU is different,” Dyck said.”This will affect us less. U of O and OSU have a much higherincidence of full-time students.”

“(The plateau) is just something that’s been around forever inacademia,” Dyck said. “Once upon a time you were full time, andthere wasn’t any choice.”

And while costs are redistributed among undergrads, PSU is alsolowering tuition for graduate students, whose tuition wasdisproportionately raised in years past.

“In the ’90s, we were prohibited from increasing undergraduatetuition for some time,” Dyck said. Since graduate tuition wasflexible, though, graduate students saw tuition increases thatundergrads were spared.

The Board has drawn its share of criticism for dropping theplateau. The Oregon Student Association, which focuses on issues ofbasic access to higher education, is a vocal detractor.

“We opposed (eliminating the plateau) because we did quite a bitof research on this,” OSA Director John Wykoff said. “Universitiesthat implement them have higher rates of graduation in four years[than universities with no full-time price break].”

“The idea is that if you offer something at a volume discount,people will consume more,” Wykoff said. “In this case, the productis education.”

Wykoff criticizes the Board’s decision to focus on chargingstudents rather than spending down reserves, with the notableexception of Western Oregon University.

“Western had 30 percent of its operating budget left over.That’s ridiculous.”

The Board reviewed its fund balances policy at the June meeting,reestablishing 5-15 percent as the standard range. Still, Wykoffsaid, OUS should be pushing universities to use up the reservemoney to ease the burden a slouching economy puts on students.

“These are rainy day funds. This has been one of our longest anddeepest recessions… it has been raining on students for aboutthree years now.”

If there were ever a time to use up extra money, Wykoff said, itis now. Instead, universities are growing more cautious withreserves.

“In a time of need, we’re building a rainy day fund,” Wykoffsaid. “We’re expanding reserves on the backs of students.”

To make up for “sticker shock,” the Board is looking for ways tolessen the blow to students. Board director Donald Blair proposedrefunds for students with tuition increases more than 15 percent.At PSU, this would include students with 14 and 15 credits, saidDyck.

The refund plan will be further discussed at the Board’s Julymeeting.

“If and when it’s approved by the board, it will be automatic,”Dyck said.

According to Dyck, students are definitely feeling the budgetsqueeze, but the outlook could be much bleaker.

The Chancellor’s office, for example, announced in May that itwould eliminate 18 positions from its Academic Affairs division.The $1.1 million in savings will go toward creating a “fightingfund” to offer incentives to faculty to stay at state schools andwill be divided up between schools to mitigate Measure 30 cuts.

“I think the mitigation fund came about because of (students’)concerns,” Dyck said, “but I also think they see the reality.”

Access, Dyck stresses, is the biggest priority. “This is whystudent government has said, ‘We feel like we’re paying more fordecreased service,’ and that’s actually the case…we’ve beentrying to protect instruction,” Dyck said. “No one wants to see acap put on enrollment. I think the biggest concern is you don’twant to see anyone shut out.”

“To me, the most important thing is the lost opportunity (to goto college),” Dyck said. “That’s unforgivable.”

Dyck also hopes that the Board can establish credibility withthe state legislature. In the long term, she said, higher educationfunding relies on a good relationship with lawmakers.

“The hope is that the legislature comes to understand highered’s needs and what higher ed can do for the state. And hopefullyfunding will follow.”

Western Oregon University saw no tuition change, being directedinstead to draw needed funds from its 29 percent operating balanceleft over from the 2003-2004 year. Fees at Western will increase $9a term.