Are Tuition Costs at a Tipping Point?

October 7, 2013

Equitable access to higher education by students of all income groups is at risk and becoming national issue.

By Senator Toni Boucher, Ranking Member on the General Assembly’s Higher Education and Employment Advancement Committee.

University of Connecticut (UCONN) students facing a four year increase in the cost of their college education were forced to pay a little more this fall when tuition and mandatory fees rose by nearly 11%. This significant rise in tuition has affected students of all income levels, but middle and lower income families are finding it especially difficult to keep up. Students are paying 15.4% more today than they were only three years ago, and of the cost of UCONN has doubled over the last 12 years. This is deeply worrying to those among us who see higher education as a means of assuring equity and access to good jobs for graduates regardless of their financial circumstances.

The causes of this added expense are the rising cost of labor and the state’s history of underfunding its pension obligations. Next year, union and non-union employees will receive a 5 and 3 percent pay raise respectively, necessitating increases in required pension contributions. For every $1,000 UCONN expends in salary and wages, it must pay $547 per employee in fringe benefits. In Connecticut the contracts for university employees are negotiated not by the university’s governing board, but by the Governor’s office, effectively tying UCONN’s hands and limiting its ability to manage costs.

This arrangement is unusual compared to the rest of the country, where university boards have the opportunity to sit at the table to reach a compromise in determining the salaries and benefits of their employees. Nevertheless, universities in other states find themselves are in similar financial straits. The increasing unaffordability of public colleges is an issue that affects the entire nation.

Whenever I meet with university board members outside Connecticut, they tell me that they are concerned that expanding costs are excluding a larger and larger proportion of students from participating in the higher education system. For many, a college education has become possible only by assuming an enormous amount of debt. In fact, Americans now owe more student loan debt than credit card debt. My husband and I needed only seven years to pay off our college loans; today it takes the average graduate substantially longer.

Higher education can be a great equalizer and the best way to acquire a good job and rise out of poverty. This is especially true in today’s data and technology driven job market which prizes and seeks out highly skilled and educated workers. To succeed in these fields, advanced studies are essential, which is why we must do everything possible to ensure that college remains affordable for all income groups. Current tuition trends must not continue. Higher education, America’s engine of social mobility, must rededicate itself to its mission of providing a path to prosperity for the next generation.