Public colleges look like bargains as tuition continues to increase


April 14, 1991|By Jane Bryant Quinn | Jane Bryant Quinn,Washington Post Writers Group

New York -- Some of the nation's steepest price increases this year will be found at state colleges and universities. The average increase in tuition will run in the area of 10 to 12 percent, predicts Arthur Hauptman of the American Council on Education in Washington.

At the same time, education budgets will be slashed in many states, class size increased, staff dismissed and courses consolidated.

The upward push on costs comes just when students from the middle classes are starting to flee high-priced private colleges and enroll in their state schools instead. Many private institutions received fewer applications for the 1991-92 academic year, while public institutions are reporting increases of as much as 15 percent, the Chronicle of Higher Education reported last month.

To a refugee from private education, state schools will look cheap even after a double-digit price increase. In 1990, the average four-year public institution cost $4,970 for in-state students, including room and board, compared with $13,544 for a private one.

To a student of lesser means, however, who's already in the public education system, a $500 price hike may sound prohibitive. Best advice: Don't get scared until you see how much of that increase will be covered by state and federal financial aid. Students with low family incomes should still have most of their expenses paid. It's the middle-class students in public universities who will foot the rising bill.

Middle-class families may not like to hear this, but they're in the best position to pay that extra $500 or so. For them, public education is a bargain. If it takes higher tuition to help maintain the quality of the school, they shouldn't object.

Behind rising tuitions lie shrinking state budgets, especially in the recession-wracked Northeast. In 1987, the budget for the University of Massachusetts was $816 million, says Walter Littell, a spokesman. This year, it's down to $586 million, and next year it may fall another 18.2 percent. Tuitions will probably rise by around 20 percent.

The State University of New York is facing a budget gap of some $160 million. Of that, $60 million will be met by tuition increases of up to $500 a head (on top of a $300 increase this spring); the rest will come from budget cuts, according to Chancellor D. Bruce Johnstone. The cuts might cost the school as many as 1,500 faculty and staff.

Many schools are still fighting to keep costs down -- for their own residents, at least. At the University of Maryland, tuition for in-state students will increase 4 percent this year, says its chancellor, Donald Langenberg. Out-of-state students will be charged as much as 15 percent more.

These increases "won't come anywhere near making up for the cuts" in state funding, Langenberg says. Funding dropped 8.2 percent at the midyear point. Next year, it will fall another 2 percent or more.

Arizona's state university system originally planned to charge in-state students an additional 3.3 percent this fall (a rise of only $50 in tuition), and out-of-state students 6.94 percent more (a $450 rise).

But the state just chopped $16 million out of its funding and may take as much as $26 million more. If that happens, says university spokesman Stephen Jordan, fewer classes would be available, which would "probably for the first time force us to restrict admissions." Budget cuts are especially troubling in states where enrollment booms are expected.

Here's the big question facing state colleges and universities: Can they restructure themselves to deliver a quality product at a lower price?

A leader in this effort is the University of Michigan, which is re-examining its entire organization and approach. For example, "there will be a hard look at how technology can improve education," says Gilbert Whitaker Jr., provost and chair of the university's Task Force on Costs in Higher Education. Another idea: Require professors to do more teaching at some point in their careers, to balance the time allowed them for research.

"Business as usual won't do," agrees the University of Maryland's Langenberg, who is also undertaking a restructuring study.

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