Student leaders say they’ve come to expect tuition increases every year, but concern is growing among some lawmakers and educators about pricing working-class kids out of a college education.
Some student leaders seemed to take in stride the vote by the Oklahoma Regents for Higher Education last week to raise tuition rates and mandatory fees for resident students by an average of 8.6 percent.
It was the fifth year in a row that tuition had been raised since the Legislature, which used to set college rates, turned that sole authority over to the state regents.
The tuition and fee increases were 10 percent or more at two schools and 9 percent or more at nine others, including the state’s two comprehensive universities the University of Oklahoma and Oklahoma State University.
Next year, the cost for 30 credit hours will be $14,915 at OSU and $14,721 at OU.
Jordon McGee of Edmond, chairman of the University of Oklahoma Student Association Student Congress, said OU President David Boren had done a good job of explaining the need for the increases.
“I know that the university is being put in a tough situation with costs rising pretty much everywhere,” he said.
Olaf Standley of Northeastern State University attended the meeting when state regents, with no discussion, approved tuition and fee schedules approved earlier by boards governing 25 colleges and universities across the state.
“Tuition is going to have to go up, especially since we haven’t received enough money from the Legislature,” said Standley, a member of a student advisory board to the state regents.
“I’ve never been in college when there wasn’t a tuition increase,” said McGee, a senior English major at OU.
Sen. Joe Sweeden, D-Pawhuska, said tuition increases were not automatic when lawmakers had control, however, and when citizens and students seemed to rise up more in opposition to raising the cost of going to college.
Sweeden, who opposed handing control of tuition to colleges and universities when he was a House member, said lawmakers followed a pattern of raising rates only every other year.
He said college presidents hold a lot of sway, politically.
“Virtually every senator or representative has a college in their district and they feel obligated to (see) that their colleges get everything they need. If a college president comes to you and says we need your help, you help them.”
“My main concern is that we keep higher education affordable to those working, middle-class folks that aren’t valedictorians and can’t get all the scholarships and things like that to help them pay for their education,” the lawmaker said.
“We’ve got to get a hold of it, or I am afraid we are going to force the blue collar student out of the market,” he said.
Jimmy Harrell, the only state regent to vote against the increase, expressed similar views, saying rates had gone up 60 to 70 percent in recent years. He said tuition was increased by more than 5 percent last year, even though higher education got a record $130 million increase from the Legislature.
This year, colleges and universities got an extra $79 million, but much of that was earmarked for projects and other funds went to pay for bond programs. Only $27 million went into the formula to pay for increased costs and other expenses.
John Massey, outgoing regents president and a former lawmaker, said he voted for the increases with mixed emotions. As a banker, he said he sees too many students have their credit ruined because they cannot pay off their student loans.
Boren, Chancellor Glen Johnson and other higher education officials stressed that tuition rates at state colleges remain among the lowest in the region and nation.
During a special session in 2007, term-limited Sen. Frank Shurden, D-Henryetta, amended a higher education bill to put control of tuition rates back in the hands of the Legislature.
Gov. Brad Henry vetoed that proposal, however, saying it made a major policy change without enough review and discussion.
Responding to a request for comment from The Associated Press on the latest tuition increase, Henry said:
“Tuition hikes can pose a tremendous challenge for students and parents, but fortunately we were able to provide funding for higher education this year so as to forestall even larger tuition increases. I am always very concerned about maintaining access to an affordable higher education and the delicate balance between affordability and quality.
“It’ worth remembering that the costs of a college education in Oklahoma remain among the most affordable in the region and nation, and I expect that will not change.”
He said legislative action providing a permanent funding source for a college scholarship program “means Oklahoma will pick up the tuition costs for thousands of qualifying students.”
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