Lawmakers want warning on college tuition hikes

State legislators want to know about tuition changes at public colleges and universities before they are approved, but higher education officials warned Thursday that could create a political and procedural nightmare.

“Be very careful, because you’re walking on ground that could become quicksand,” Chancellor David G. Carter of the Connecticut State University system said.

Officials from CSU and the University of Connecticut also told the Higher Education and Employment Advancement Committee that the tuition hikes ordered for the coming academic year stemmed in large part from deep cuts in state funding.

In-state undergraduate students living on UConn’s main campus in Storrs face a 5.9 percent increase in tuition, room, board and other fees next academic year, or $1,180 extra. At each of the four regional campuses of the CSU system, the cost goes up 5.6 percent, or $950.

The proposed legislation would not require committee approval of proposed changes, but only that lawmakers be given “reasonable” notice.

But Carter told the co-chairwomen of the panel and proponents of the bill, Sen. Mary Ann Handley, D-Manchester, and Rep. Roberta B. Willis, D-Salisbury, that the legislature could – unintentionally – undercut responsible tuition proposals developed after months of careful analysis by the system’s Board of Trustees.

For example, if committee members were notified about a proposed increase discussed alternatives at a public meeting, Carter said, there quickly could be two competing proposals being reported in the news media. “Now it’s front page news that the legislature says it should be B and not A,” Carter added. “Now the trustees’ legs are shorter.”

Carter added the higher education officials already are hard pressed to have tuition and fees resolved in time to be printed in student catalogues normally released in November. Though neither Handley nor Willis said how much advance notice would meet the “reasonable” test set out in their bill, Carter said an extra requirement inevitably would leave universities less time to set their fees.

Public colleges and universities already are required to report planned tuition hikes to the Department of Higher Education and to the Executive Branch’s chief fiscal arm, the Office of Policy and Management.

But Handley and Willis insisted they simply are looking for similar consideration and don’t want to have legislative debates on tuition proposals.

“We are asking for the same courtesy given to the Department of Higher Education, are we not?” Willis said.

“We would like to have the information and an opportunity to understand why it is going to happen,” Handley said, adding that better communication between the legislature and the universities might increase support among lawmakers for higher education funding. “We can already hold a public hearing on tuition any time we want. That’s not what this is about.”

Both Carter and Peter Nicholls, UConn provost and executive vice president for academic affairs, said they could keep legislators informed without a statutory requirement.

“You only have to ask,” Carter said.

“The university values transparency and public input into its tuition- and policy-setting process,” Nicholls testified, adding proposals are developed only after consultation with faculty, unions, students and parents.

Nicholls added that UConn absorbed nearly $23 million in budget cuts last fiscal year, a key factor that drove the latest tuition and fee increase.