Story, graphic and photo by Zeynab Day
Students across the state are taking to the phones, raising signs and heading to Frankfort to speak out against rising tuition cost, and Eastern is no exception. Eastern’s Student Government Association is teaming up with eight other state intuitions and EKU administrators to combat rising tuition costs and speak out against state legislation that could have a negative impact on both students and the university.
Costs for higher education may be on the rise, but a newly proposed Kentucky Senate bill to freeze tuition is not the answer, voiced Eastern’s SGA, after voting in mid-February to oppose the bill.
“A bill like this would cripple regional colleges,” said EKU SGA President Katie Scott. “Senate Bill 75 only treats a symptom but doesn’t address the real problem—state budget cuts to higher education.”
She said the rising cost of tuition is a concern, but a tuition freeze would only make the problem worse and doesn’t address the money lost due to state budget cuts. With the current nine percent budget cut proposed by Governor Matt Bevins, with a 4.9 percent cut to the current budget, a tuition freeze could force the university to cut necessary programs, faculty or staff, Scott said.
“The SGA decided to oppose the bill because the more research we did, the more we realized that it was not the best for students in general,” Scott said.
Senate Bill 75 was aiming to freeze tuition and residential fees for the next four years until Kentucky lawmakers could thoroughly evaluate the current cost of tuition and seek ways to ensure it continues to be affordable for Kentuckians. The bill was geared to spark conversation amongst law makers about the rising cost of tuition in Kentucky, said bill sponsor Kentucky Senator Dan Seum (R), who represents Bullitt County and part of Jefferson County.
State university tuition costs have been rising rapidly since 2008 due to a steady decline in state funding, which once kept tuition cost down. The funds allocated to state universities have dropped by $165 million since 2008 but is disproportional to the combined $582 million in revenue gained from tuition increases, Suem said.
Several state colleges are creating a debt crisis for new students with elevated tuition costs and what he calls an “arms race” between Kentucky universities to compete for new students, Seum said.
“It’s a national phenomenon; these universities are in the habit of castle building,” Seum said. “It looks nice but somebody’s got to pay for that, and it shouldn’t fall on the back of the students.”
EKU spokesman David McFaddin said although there is quite a bit of construction on Eastern’s campus, administrators have been seeking alternative ways to pay for many of the capital projects, such as private-public partnerships and donors. For instance, the Noel Reading Porch was funded, in part, by the Noel family and Grand Campus apartments were built and managed by an outside organization.
Improvements on campus are a must, McFaddin said. The majority of buildings on campus were built in the 1960’s and New Hall is the first dorm built in more than 50 years. It’s time to update Eastern’s living facilities to ensure student safety and comfort, McFaddin said.
McFaddin said proposed legislation generalizes state colleges when each university’s budget and needs differ. He said tuition costs increases have not made up for the money lost in state budget cuts.
“Looking at gross tuition and fee revenue does not provide a complete picture,” McFaddin said.
When taking inflation into account, Eastern is seeing a loss of revenue per student. Meaning less money for the university to spend to meet student’s needs, McFaddin said.
“This leaves the post-secondary institutions with a combined state appropriation and tuition fee revenue reduction of $431 per student, or a $70 million loss in funding for the system since 2008,” McFaddin said.
President Benson discussed similar numbers at the latest budget forum in Brock Auditorium on March 8, referring to a recent study that showed that the cost per-student to the university has hovered around $15,000 since 2000. He explained that there hasn’t been much change in the cost of education per-student on a budgetary level. Essentially, students are paying a lot more out of pocket because the state is paying so much less, Benson said.
Benson said Kentucky ranks last in higher-education contributions. Where most states have increased funding to state colleges, Kentucky legislators continue to cut funding. He also noted that immediate cuts to state allocations, like percent proposed by Bevin, are very rare in Kentucky and other states.
McFaddin said the university understands the economic climate in Kentucky, and its challenges with poverty. As a state institution, Eastern has a social responsibility to its residents to provide educational opportunities that are affordable. Notably, 83 percent of Eastern students are from Kentucky and pay in-state tuition.
“The majority of our students are from Kentucky,” McFadden said. “Many are first-generation college students, and we want to make sure our institution continues to be an affordable choice for students in this region.”
Eastern student Caitlin Brock, 20, biology and pre-medical junior from Bell County, says she is in support of the bill because it opens up a dialogue about the rising cost of tuition and what impact it could have on the ability for many Kentucky students to pay for college.
“Why doesn’t our state take more steps to make college more affordable,” Brock said. “(SB 75) is paving the way for future conversations, as a bi-partisan bill, to help make education more affordable.”
Brock, who is also the EKU College Republican Chair and Vice President of the Conservative Coalition, said she chose Eastern because it was an affordable option and understands EKU has different budgetary needs than other universities in the state. Yet, she said in-state tuition at many schools are starting to come close to the cost of private institutions in Kentucky.
“(EKU) hasn’t raised tuition as much as other universities, but students should think about what can happen in the next few years if tuition keeps going up,” Brock said. “If I am not choosing to go to a private school, I shouldn’t have to pay as if I did.”
Scott said tuition dollars are not flat profit; they go to services that make the student experiences better on campus and work toward higher retention and graduation rates, and a better learning environment.
“Tuition at Eastern’s not being wasted,” Scott said. “It’s easy to take for granted the day to day on campus and facilities like tutoring and our smaller classroom sizes.”
Scott said the Council on Post-Secondary education currently sets a tuition cap of eight percent to be split-up among two years. No university in Kentucky can raise tuition more than five percent in a year. She said SB 75 takes the power out of the hands of the CPE and gives no clear indication of what happens after the freeze is up in four years, which puts students at risk for a very high spike in tuition in 2020.
The CPE was one of many considerations discussed at the Tuesday, February 9 meeting where SGA voted 21 – 1 to oppose Senate Bill 75. Scott spoke to the house budget committee in Frankfort on Thursday, February 19, defending EKU’s current budget and speaking out against state cuts. Benson commended Scott for her effort and said her efforts likely prevent the bill from making it into session. Scott said she as relieved the committee decided against the bill.
“It sounds like a good solution for the short term, but in the long term there are too many unpredictable variables,” Scott said.
The SGA has also jump-started a grassroots-movement among the student body at Eastern, encouraging students to contact their local senators and speak-out about the budget cuts.
“For every call your senator gets, it produces a green slip,” Scott said. “It only takes three or four green slips to catch your legislator’s attention.”
The SGA is currently scheduling rallies and is working with student government associations at seven other institutions in the state. On February 25, students from Murray State organized a march, where more than 100 students from several state institutions walked from Kentucky State University to the Capitol Building in Frankfort and rallied in support of increased appropriation for state-funded institutions and opposition for the latest round of budget cuts.
Kentucky state legislators are set to finalize the budget at the end of March. At the latest budget Benson also called to the campus community to reach out to their local representatives regarding university funding cuts. More information could be found by clicking here, including a streaming video of the latest tuition forum at Eastern.
Click to enlarge graphic.