A tuition milestone for UConn: Students to pay more than state

University of Connecticut officials will recommend a tuition increase next week that, if adopted, will mark a milepost in the long trend of shifting public higher education costs to students.

The 5.8 percent increase in tuition and fees would mark the first time that revenue from students would exceed the state’s contribution to running Connecticut’s flagship university.

If the Board of Trustees approves the recommendation, UConn will join a growing number of public colleges across the nation that have seen the proportion of state funding decline steadily while tuition and fees paid by students continue to rise.

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The state’s other public university system, Connecticut State University, has already joined the ranks of schools where students pay a larger share of the cost than the state. While tuition and fees in both systems will increase next year, state funding is expected to remain flat.

UConn’s chief financial officer, Richard D. Gray, said Monday he will recommend setting required undergraduate tuition and fees for state residents at $10,464 for the 2010-11 school year, an increase of $578.

The total cost of attending UConn, including room and board, would rise to $21,016 for a resident undergraduate, an increase of $1,228, or 6.2 percent.

The tuition increase would allow the university to operate without major disruptions next year despite a budget that includes no increase in state funding, Gray said.

Nevertheless, Gray sounded an ominous warning for the university’s budget the year after next, when the state’s allocation of federal stimulus money runs out. By then, even with another similar increase in tuition, “we could be facing a $20 million to $40 million deficit,” he said. “For 2012, all bets are off.”

Students could see larger class sizes and find it increasingly difficult to schedule the classes they need to graduate in four years, he said. Gray did not rule out the possibility of double-digit tuition increases but said, “The administration will be working hard to prevent that.”

Gray is hopeful for an economic recovery, but added, “I don’t think I’ve seen anything like this for a long time. I’m concerned.”

Next year, tuition and fees under Gray’s recommendation would account for 32.2 percent of UConn’s operating budget while state support would be slightly less, 31.8 percent. Other sources, including research grants and private support, make up the remainder.

Some public universities rely even more heavily on tuition. Students pay nearly 49 percent of operating costs at the University of Vermont, for example, while the state contributes 8 percent. At Penn State University, tuition and fees account for 72 percent of the budget and state funds 20 percent. And at the University of Michigan, tuition makes up 34 percent of the budget while state funds account for 11 percent.

“State support as a share of public higher education funding has been declining for a generation,” said Terry Hartle, senior vice president for the American Council on Education in Washington, D.C. “The trend tends to accelerate during a recession.”

Nowhere is the problem more serious than at the University of California, where tuition is rising by 32 percent next year.

Students in the Connecticut State University system already pay a larger share of the budget than the state does, and are facing another increase next year: a hike in tuition and fees of 6.3 percent, or $477 for commuter students. Students living on campus will pay $950 more, a 5.6 percent increase.

At UConn, Gray said that despite the proposed increase, “we are still a tremendous value.” He cited figures showing that this year’s $9,886 tuition and fees for UConn’s in-state undergraduates is less than that of public universities such as the University of Vermont ($13.524), University of New Hampshire ($12,743), Rutgers University ($11,886), and the University of Massachusetts ($11,732).

Nevertheless, the debate over tuition already has begun. Jason Ortiz, a columnist for The Daily Campus student newspaper, sharply criticized the proposed hike in a column in Monday’s edition. “This continued attempt to have undergraduates subsidized the careers of wealthy administrators is unsustainable,” he wrote. “We are seeing classes cut yet costs are skyrocketing. . . .With our budget at more than a billion dollars, someone is certainly making a lot of money; it just doesn’t happen to be anyone the university is supposed to serve.”