College students gear up for 2-year legislative lobbying effort in the wake of new tuition cap

04/29/2014 08:21 PM

MURRAY — Faced with another year of up to a 5 percent tuition increase, Kentucky public college student leaders said it’s time to mobilize legislative activism in a different way before the next state budget is built.

The Council on Postsecondary Education on Tuesday approved a tuition cap of 8 percent over the next two years — but no more than 5 percent in either 2014-15 or 2015-16 school year. The university trustees at the eight public universities will have to decide how to set their tuition rates in the coming weeks.

In approving a two-year cap, the council defied the wishes of Gov. Steve Beshear, who had pushed for a one-year cap of 4 percent.

The General Assembly did lessen the blow of what Gov. Steve Beshear first proposed in his version of the budget — a 2.5 percent cut. Lawmakers ultimately backed that down to a 1.5 percent cut next year and flat-line funding in 2015-16.

At their meeting Tuesday at Murray State University, council members said the governor and legislature have given universities little choice but to raise tuition over the last five years by approving nearly $100 million in state funding cuts to the institutions. That and the rising costs of salaries, pensions, technology and energy have left universities with multi-million gaps to cover. While tuition increases have covered a piece of that, universities also have slashed budgets through program cuts and efficiencies.

Robert King, president of the council on postsecondary education, said several of the public universities are considering layoffs in the wake of the latest 1.5 cuts.

Universities will increase their student aid and scholarships in the next school year — but not enough to blunt the full effect of 5 percent tuition increases. Several Council on Postsecondary Education members — and some lawmakers — have made the point that tuition increases amount to tax increases on college students and their families.

King urged student body leaders who attended Tuesday’s meeting to increase their lobbying presence in the General Assembly and get students and their families plugged in to how decisions in Frankfort affect them. That’s a message University of Louisville student government president Carrie Mattingly embraced:

Mattingly and University of Kentucky student body president Roshan Palli both said they understand the tough spot universities are in. And while they’re not thrilled with another tuition increase next year of up to 5 percent, they don’t blame university leaders or the council.

Palli said he doesn’t believe another 5 percent tuition increase will force students out of college, but he said he worries that, at some point as tuition rises, students won’t be getting their money’s worth.

After the tuition cap was announced at Tuesday’s meeting, several university leaders, including Western Kentucky University Gary Ransdell and Kentucky State University President Mary Sias rose to thank the council for the flexibility — particularly a two-year cap that allows them to do long-term planning that has alluded them in recent years amid uncertainty.

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