State report: UConn is less affordable

UConn's main campus at Storrs

The CT Mirror

UConn's main campus at Storrs

The University of Connecticut has become increasingly less affordable for low- and middle-income state residents.

That was one finding, reported Friday, by nonpartisan legislative researchers.

“UConn’s affordability has declined,” the staff for the Program Review and Investigations Committee concluded in a 198-page report about costs at the state’s flagship university. “UConn’s increase in the share of income needed [to attend] was worse than most flagships for net price paid by low- and middle-income students." They add that students from higher-income families pay a smaller share of their income to attend, and rising costs between the 2008-09 and 2011-12 school year have not affected them as drastically.

For example, the amount low-income students are spending as a proportion of their family's income to attend UConn increased 13 percent from fiscal year 2008-09 to fiscal year 2010-11. During that same period, the share for high-income students rose 6 percent, the report showed.

PRI staff annually investigates several topics that legislators ask them to study in depth. Several of their reports and recommendations have led to changes in state law in recent years.

The drop in affordability over the last decade is the result of several factors:

  • Over the years, lower- and middle-income students are getting less and less financial support per student from the university and federal government.
  • The university’s endowment fund and the amount of money awarded for research is far below other flagships. This leaves students having to cover the university's drastically rising costs.
  • The state's share in covering UConn's costs has gone from one-half in 1996 to one-third in 2013.

This fiscal picture forced the university to draw $30 million from its emergency reserves this school year to cover nearly 3 percent of its operating budget.

Sen. Steve Cassano, D-Manchester, incoming Senate chairman of the Higher Education Committee, called the report a “strong baptismal.”

“This only emphasizes how big that challenge is,” the UConn graduate said of his new role. This report “will have an impact on our direction in higher education.”

Shortly after being named the co-chairman, he called for more legislative oversight of the finances of UConn and other public higher education institutions.

Officials at UConn had upbeat responses to the report.

“We are very pleased that the PRI report has shown The University of Connecticut excels in providing an affordable, high-quality education for our students, regardless of their economic means,” Wayne Locust, vice president for enrollment planning and management, wrote in a statement.

While researchers concluded that it's becoming increasingly harder for lower-income residents to attend UConn, the university president’s deputy chief of staff pointed to one finding that the cost is “relatively reasonable when compared to median household income” of students in schools in other states.

However, the researchers also point out that the median income level -- which includes wealthy lower Fairfield County that boasts some of the nation’s wealthiest communities  -- has a large impact on UConn’s affordability measures.

“The university does all it can to help keep the cost of an education at UConn affordable for students and families,” Deputy Chief of Staff Michael Kirk wrote in an emailed response to questions. When UConn's costs by socio-economic status are compared with other flagship schools, researchers find that UConn is as affordable.

On the university’s poor rankings on size of its research grants and its endowment, Kirk said these are “two key priorities” officials are working on improving.

UConn's federal research money has dropped by $61 million -- 26 percent -- over the last five years. The university's main philanthropic arm -- The UConn Foundation -- has, so far this fiscal year, raised $10.8 million less than at this time last year.

In an attempt to reverse this trend UConn officials have moved forward with a faculty hiring plan that will allow smaller class sizes and increased research productivity. State lawmakers last year also decided to spend $1.6 billion to build and renovate facilities, with UConn promising to raise tens of millions of dollars more for research.

Less affordable, but for whom?

Legislators also homed in on the finding that while UConn's enrollment has increased since 1995, the rate of students coming from out of state has significantly outpaced in-state students enrollment increases.

UConn affordability

Program Review and Investigations Committee

Twenty percent of incoming freshmen to UConn's main campus at Storrs during the 1994-95 school year were from out-of-state, compared with 31 percent in 2011-12.

“The people at home, this is a huge issue for them… My moms and dads are not happy right now,” Sen. John Kissel, R-Enfield, UConn alumnus and co-chair of the committee, said of his constituents.

UConn responded saying non-resident enrollment is important.

“UConn is going to continue to recruit and enroll great students; most of them will be from Connecticut, but out-of-state students, including international students, are an essential ingredient in that mix, as they are at every large research university. Geographic diversity is as important to universities as ethnic and socioeconomic diversity,” Kirk said, adding that about two-thirds of all UConn students remain in the state after they graduate.

Transparency

Researchers concluded that university officials didn't provide certain information because they don't track it. This included the number of credits they accept from students who transfer to UConn from other schools. The researchers said they wanted this data since many community colleges or other schools in the state may be a less expensive option for students to begin their studies -- but only if UConn allows them to count that work toward their degree.

“This will require more review,” Kirk responded.

The report also pointed out that the price listed on UConn’s website and provided to parents is not the actual cost students often end up paying after factoring in fees and other added costs. Nor does UConn post its long-term adopted tuition schedule so parents and students can plan ahead.

“Because about 80 percent of UConn students receive some form of financial aid, most students do not ever pay the ‘sticker price,’” Kirk responded. Researchers found that nearly half of UConn's financial aid dollars do not go to low-income students.

Proposed changes to state law

The committee staff is recommending that the university be required to report annually to the Office of Higher Education on who receives financial aid from the university, and how much the awards are for.

Staff also recommends that the university provide more information on transfer credits and transfer students so legislators can determine if their objective of seamless transfers is being achieved.

They also recommend that the university be required to study various initiatives that other state flagship schools have adopted. This includes guaranteeing that student tuition remains the same throughout a student's college career, and not allowing families to spend more than a certain percentage of their income on college costs.

“The university is happy to study these recommendations in greater detail to determine their feasibility and what effect they would have on the institution,” Kirk wrote.

About Jacqueline Rabe Thomas

Jacqueline won two first prizes from the national Education Writers Association for her work in 2012 – one in beat reporting for her overall education coverage, and the other, with Keith Phaneuf, in investigative reporting on a series of stories revealing questionable monetary and personnel actions taken by the Board of Regents for Higher Education. Before coming to The Mirror, Jacqueline was a reporter, online editor and website developer for The Washington Post Co.'s Maryland newspaper chains. She has also worked for Congressional Quarterly and the Toledo Free Press. A graduate of Bowling Green State University, Jacqueline is in the public policy master’s program at Trinity College.

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