With very little discussion, the UConn trustees voted unanimously Monday for a four-year schedule of tuition increases, starting with 6 percent next year and climbing steadily to 6.8 percent in 2016.
For in-state undergraduates that will mean their tuition and fees will climb to $11,290 next fall -- $620 more than this year's charge of $10,670. By 2016, the charge will be $2,676 more than this year, or $13,346.
That's assuming the state does not increase funding to the university; if the state does boost funding by 0.5 percent in each of the next four years, the board approved a slightly scaled-back series of tuition hikes, starting with 5.5 percent next year and ending in 2016 with 6.3 percent.
It's the first time in anyone's memory that the board has approved a four-year schedule of tuition increases.
"I will tell you that not many institutions around the country have been able to do this: give parents and students predictability about what tuition is going to look like [over four years]," UConn President Susan Herbst said after the meeting.
The trustees also voted to increase the cost of room and board by 3 percent.
Overall the cost for a student who rooms and boards at UConn will be $22,430 next year and $25,518 by 2016, including tuition, assuming the state does not increase its funding. This year's total is $21,720.
When room and board are figured in, the overall increase will be slightly more than 4 percent in each of the next four years.
Herbst said the increases are needed to offset the "tens of millions of dollars in state appropriation cuts."
"We are in the top 20, finally," Herbst said, referring to this year's U.S. News & World Report ranking of public research universities. "Let's keep this status, and let's move up. I was not hired to be smug at number 19; I was hired to help make this a top-tier research university."
Herbst plans to use the increased tuition money to hire 290 more faculty. That will reduce the current 18-to-1 ratio of students to faculty to 15-to-1 in four years.
"The communication that I get most from our students is that they want more professors," Herbst said. "That has been a drumbeat of student public opinion since I arrived here, since I took the job almost a year ago."
Herbst said that students complain regularly that they can't get the classes they need to graduate on time, which she says leads to considerably more expense for students than a tuition increase.
Larry McHugh, chairman of the board of trustees, said after the meeting that university staff had proposed varying tuition scenarios ranging from a high of a 9 percent increase down to 5 percent.
Of the 9 percent proposal, McHugh said, "I felt and others thought that was much too high, and that's why we came in where we came in."
If there was less debate among board members Monday than in past years' tuition discussions, McHugh said, it was because they agree on the importance of reducing the student-faculty ratio.
"I'm a firm believer that you have to have full-time professors at the university to service the students, and we were getting very short on that," McHugh said. "Could you wait a year or two? No. The slippage would continue and kids would not be graduating" on time.
In the late 1990s, he said, the student-faculty ratio was 14-to-1.
Last year, Gov. Dannel P. Malloy asked that tuition hikes at public universities not exceed 2.5 percent because of the poor economy. All state universities and colleges complied, with UConn raising tuition by 2.44 percent.
Andrew Doba, spokesman for the governor, said Monday that Malloy "is supportive of an increase, as long as the money goes to investment in the faculty. ... They have pledged to drop the [student to faculty] ratio from 18-to-1 down to 15-to-1, and we are going to hold them to that."
During a public comment session before the trustees' vote, only a handful of people spoke; none spoke against a tuition increase.
Professor Kent Holsinger, chairman of the University Senate Executive Committee, said the increase was needed to reverse two troubling trends: large class sizes and students' difficulty enrolling in needed courses.
Sam Tracy, UConn student body president, supported the increase and the plan to add faculty but said he finds it "unreasonable to push the entire bill on to students, who are graduating with an average of $23,200 in debt."
Tracy said he hopes the state will stop making cuts and "start renewing its commitment to higher education."
He also criticized the scheduling of the trustees' meeting on Monday when dormitories were closing for the semester and few students remained on campus. "Those who are still around are packing frantically to move out of the dorms by noon when they close," he said.
Also, he said, the town hall-style meetings held last week to discuss the tuition proposal took place during final exams, which made it difficult for students to participate. Two years ago when a tuition increase was under consideration, he said, many students attended the trustees' meeting. Tracy appeared to be the only student at Monday's meeting other than a student trustee.
Herbst said later that the scheduling of the meeting was not meant to shut out students but to allow trustees to move quickly so that "students and parents could start planning for September. Other institutions around the country have already set their tuition. We are a little bit late to this."
"We worked with students as much as we could," Herbst said, noting that she stayed at last week's town meeting until "they were out of questions. This is never easy, and there is no easy time for it."
Also, she said, the university's financial aid administrators need time to "make sure enough money is set aside for struggling families and middle-class families." She said that with next year's tuition increase, financial aid staff expect to distribute more aid.
Herbst urged students worried about being able to pay to get in touch with the financial aid office.
"We give out a tremendous amount of financial aid, not only to needy students, but also to middle-class families. We also give out a lot of merit aid."
Herbst told the board, "This discussion should not be about the sticker price of a UConn education. The sticker price, for the tremendous quality, is low relative to many of our peers, and a bargain relative to private higher [education]."
UConn's tuition this year is lower than every other New England flagship university except the University of Maine. On a list of the top 50 public national institutions, UConn's tuition for this year is in the middle: the 26th highest.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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