BOSTON — It's one of the hottest topics around the kitchen table: how to pay for that next increase in college tuition.
In two decades, tuition has risen fivefold, much faster than personal income and inflation. Polls rank public concerns about it above crime or lack of health care. A new report calls it "the biggest single threat to public and political support for higher education."
Not surprisingly, politicians are tapping into voter angst. So the idea of freezing or at least capping public-university tuition increases to keep college accessible is a fast-growing gambit in state government.
Despite fat budget surpluses and fresh inflows of state funds into higher education, new vise-tight limits on public-university tuition hikes are being debated or legislated in at least nine states.
*In Oregon, students used a kitchen appliance to win a respite on tuition increases a couple of years ago, hauling a refrigerator around the state with "Hey Governor, Freeze Our Tuition, Now!!" on the front.
That two-year freeze is expiring. But students are hatching a new surprise for Gov. John Kitzhaber later this month. The stunt will aim to rally support to keep tuitions frozen at 1997 levels.
"We're planning something big," says Eric Miller, a spokesman for the Oregon Student Association.
*In Massachusetts, Gov. Paul Cellucci (R) is crusading against a tuition and fee increase at the University of Massachusetts.
*In Virginia, Gov. Jim Gilmore is going one step further with his proposed 20 percent tuition cut.
Other states with measures to curb, cap, or freeze tuition increases include South Carolina, Arizona, New Hampshire, New Jersey, South Dakota, and Illinois, says Travis Reindl, a policy analyst at the American Association of State Colleges and Universities in Washington. Colorado already has legislation limiting tuition growth and others may be considering it, he says. California and New York governors are also pushing freezes. At least three states - Connecticut, Louisiana, and Oregon - already have them.
Is this good news?
Such belt-tightening may sound like good news for wallets. And it is, temporarily. But to Jane Wellman, senior associate at the Institute for Higher Education Policy in Washington, these measures are ultimately ineffective since they do not fundamentally restructure higher-ed financing away from relying on tuition.
State politicians and boards of higher education are playing a dicey game of "tuition chicken," says Ms. Wellman, author of a new report called "The Tuition Puzzle." All sides pretend tuition must never rise, she says, waiting to see who moves first toward an increase. Whoever does is slammed as a spendthrift.
A good example, she says, is happening in Massachusetts. University of Massachusetts trustees were hammered for their approval this month of a 1.4 percent tuition hike - less than the 1.6 percent rise in inflation. The rise came after four years of tuition cuts.
Governor Cellucci decried the increase, pointing to a 5 percent increase in 2001 funding the state has just given the university system. He is threatening a $4.6 million cut in state funding, equal to the hike.
"We've been trying to get college and state universities to be more affordable, more accessible to the citizens of this state," he told reporters. "Now all of a sudden the University of Massachusetts wants to increase the costs ... and I don't think it's right."
He would seem to have legislative support. A separate bill sponsored by the entire Massachusetts Senate aims to cap tuition and fee increases at one-third of the cost to educate each student.
But that's not the case. Sen. Stanley Rosenberg (D) of Amherst, the legislation's prime sponsor, says Cellucci is grandstanding, and that after years of cuts, more education appropriations are needed.
"Cellucci wants low tuition and fees - and low appropriations," he says. "You can't do both and maintain quality. He's trying to have his cake and eat it too."
Massachusetts higher-education tuition, he reminds, rose more than 100 percent in the past decade - even as state funding fell 20 percent. And what happened in Massachusetts has happened nationwide as state and federal funds shriveled and tuitions grew.
Tuition key to revenues
Wellman explains that since 1980, student tuition has become much more critical to public higher education. In that period, the tuition share of higher education revenue at four-year public institutions rose to 18 percent from 13 percent. At the same time, the federal share fell to 11 percent from 13 percent. And states' share dropped to 36 percent from 46 percent. The burden, she says, has shifted to students.
Now state funding for higher education is rising again. It grew 6 percent over the last couple of years, says Mr. Reindl. Inflation has grown only 2 percent.
"Because so many states are doing so well ... and appropriations for higher education are doing relatively well - the calculation going on in legislators' and governors' minds is: 'We're giving them money, so they should not be raising tuition,' " Reindl says.
Tuition is a now much larger slice of household income - rising from 14 percent for a middle-income family in 1980 to 17 percent today, according to the College Board. For a low-income family, the burden rose from 50 percent to 62 percent.
"The highest-income families' children are going to college in record numbers," says Anthony Samu, president of the United States Student Association. "But that isn't true for America's lowest-income families. College costs are still too high, and financial aid is still eroding. That has to change."