Kentucky Senate to hear tuition freeze bill

Emma Collins

In an attempt to make college education more affordable and ease the burden of college debt, three Kentucky state senators have proposed a bill that will mandate a four-year tuition freeze for state-funded universities and colleges.

This bill will affect students attending all eight of Kentucky’s universities and colleges as well as students studying at the state’s technical and community colleges.

Senate Bill 75, An Act relating to tuition fees for postsecondary education and declaring an emergency, was presented to the Kentucky Senate on Jan. 12.

If passed, the bill, which is sponsored by Republican senators Dan Seum, John Schickel and Chris Girdler, will ensure that tuition from the 2016-2017 school year through the 2019-2020 school year remains equal to the tuition for this 2015-2016 school year. WKU’s tuition would remain at a cost of $4,741 and $12,066 per semester for in-state and out-of-state students, respectively.

In addition to freezing tuition, the bill would require any universities who want to increase tuition after the four-year freeze to work together with the Kentucky General Assembly to set tuition rates.

Currently, the Council on Postsecondary Education sets the tuition rates for every school year. If passed, the bill would allow the council to continue to help set tuition prices; however, the General Assembly would have to be consulted before tuition could be raised.

Sen. Seum of Bullitt County and part of Jefferson County said tuition rates have seen a significant increase in the last few years due to the state’s postsecondary education budget cuts. He claims universities are increasing tuition in an attempt to make up for the cutbacks.

“Since 2008, we, the state, have cut the general fund appropriation by $165 million for all eight universities,” Seum said. “Since 2008, the universities have increased tuition by $572 million.”

Seum said in a press conference that the $572 million has come solely from tuition, not from extra fees students are required to pay; these fees have also been increased because of budget cuts.

The bill includes a section addressing these fees, which are separate from tuition. The bill would require the board of regents for each university and their trustees to freeze the amount of incidental fees students are charged over the next four years. Incidental fees include any fees added to make up for budget cuts or shortfalls.

Between 2010 and 2015, WKU raised in-state tuition by 21 percent from $3,780 per semester to $4,570 while out-of-state tuition increased by 24 percent from $9,420 per semester to $11,676.

These increases accounted to an 8 percent increase in the amount of revenue generated by student tuition. At the same time, state funding for the university decreased by 2 percent. State funding made up 23 percent of the revenue in 2015.

The revenue generated by the university, including state funds, is used primarily to cover staff compensation and benefits. Only about 8 percent of the revenue helps students cover tuition through scholarships. The average student loan debt for undergraduates at WKU is $27,000.

Seum decided to write the bill after his granddaughter graduated from WKU this past year.

“She got a great education, was thrilled to go there, but she’s going to be an elementary school teacher with a $40,000 debt,” Seum said during his introduction of the bill during the Senate’s assembly.

Another of Seum’s granddaughters is currently a senior in high school and will be attending college next year.

“My question to each one of these university presidents is: I have another granddaughter who’s graduating this year from high school. If she goes off to college in the state of Kentucky, four years from now is she going to be $60,000 in debt?” Seum said.

Sue Patrick, director of communications for the council, believes a tuition freeze would be detrimental to colleges.

Patrick said the council does take into consideration the ability of students and their families to afford a college education; however, other aspects of running a university must also be considered.

“We do have on our front burner — as we have every year we set tuition — keeping the cost as low as possible for students and their families, but we also have to balance that with the needs of the institutions to offer quality academic programing and quality student support services,” Patrick said.

In defense of the council’s lack of support for the bill, Patrick said Seum’s statistics do not tell the whole story.

“If you look at the time period of 2009 to 2016, there’s been a 61 percent reduction in the average annual increase in tuition in Kentucky compared to the seven-year period of 2002 to 2009,” Patrick said.

Kentucky, a member of the Southern Regional Education Board, has seen only a 38 percent tuition increase in the past few years while the average increase for other schools in the SREB is 45 percent, Patrick said.

So far, the council’s plans for next year’s tuition will be handled much as they have in the past.

“As in previous years, we will appoint a Tuition Development Work Group, which will review the tuition-setting process, develop a tuition-setting timeline, and make recommendations to the Council for tuition and mandatory fee ceilings for the 2016-18 academic years,” Patrick stated in an email.

Ann Mead, WKU’s senior vice president for the Division of Finance and Administration, also believes a tuition freeze would be problematic.

“We understand why the price of college is a concern, but right now we are considerably dependent on student tuition in order to pay our bills,” Mead said.

President Gary Ransdell said tuition helps cover the increasing costs of technology, utilities, salary increases, library journals and IT contracts, among other needs.

Ransdell said he believes the cost of running a university necessitates yearly tuition increases. Without a regular tuition increase, the costs for managing a college quickly surpass the budget.

“We have costs that go up each year, and if you have no tuition increase, then you’re into cutting your budget every year to pay the bills,” Ransdell said.

A freeze in tuition would be extremely difficult for the university given Gov. Matt Bevin’s proposal for a budget that will include a cut to funding for the universities.

WKU must cut 4.5 percent of its budget by the end of June 2016, and if Bevin’s proposal is approved by the state Congress this year, the university will have to cut even more of the budget during the next two fiscal years.

If those cuts are coupled with a tuition freeze, the state’s colleges and universities will experience a fairly significant loss of funds that Ransdell said will be a major blow to postsecondary education institutions.

“It’s just not feasible, especially not in an environment where we’re being asked to cut our budgets,” Ransdell said.

The loss of money from both the cutbacks and the tuition freeze would jeopardize some of the university’s plans, such as a faculty and staff salary increase and continued work on the capital construction projects. WKU currently has a list of upcoming construction projects that includes a new parking structure and a new facility for the Gordon Ford College of Business.

Seum said this constant construction on college campuses comes from the universities’ desire to expand.

“Our universities have been spending a lot of time in what I call ‘castle building.’ You know: ‘My castle is bigger than your castle,’” Seum said. “They have seemed to start viewing these kids — our students, our children — as nothing more than a cash cow.”

Seum is realistic about the bill’s chances of passing.

“It may not pass this time. You may have to wait another year and file it again because most pieces of legislation don’t pass the process the first time out, but what it is doing is sending a message to the universities [and] the university presidents that enough is enough,” Seum said. “We can’t continue on this road.”

If the bill does not pass, Seum said he will refile it during next year’s session.

Seum said the response from students and their families has been overwhelmingly positive. The response from the university presidents has been the opposite.

“All of them have been in my office, and they’re mad at me,” Seum said.

Ransdell said he has spoken with Seum before, but not in regards to the bill.

“I spoke with him in passing in the foyer of his office,” Ransdell said. “We haven’t talked about the bill, but I look forward to it.”

In Ransdell’s opinion, the budget cuts and tuition freeze seem financially unrealistic.

“There’s no business in the country that could absorb a freeze in prices and have somebody tell you to give up so much money in your business operating budget,” Ransdell said. “There’s not a business model in existence [with] that dynamic that can work like that.”

On Wednesday, Feb.17, a rally supporting Senate Bill 75 will be held in the capitol rotunda.

After the rally, which will be held at 12 p.m., supporters will be encouraged to meet with their local senators and representatives to lobby the bill.

The bill will be heard next Thursday, Feb.18, in the Senate Education Committee.