Rising Tuition Not Just A Georgia Problem

One of the more interesting semi-public power plays during this year’s General Assembly has been between legislators and the Board of Regents. Georgia’s Constitution insulates the Board of Regents and thus the University System of Georgia from direct political influence. This is to keep the whims of modern politics from imposing undue influence of academics and admissions, which could ultimately jeopardize accreditation. The input legislators have over the system is usually limited to one line item in the state budget that funds the entire system, plus any specific projects that make the short list for funding through the state’s annual bond package.

There’s evidence that Legislators would like to exert more influence over the University system, especially with regards to rising tuition rates. Early in the session, Rep David Stover of Newnan filed a bill that would change the members of the Board of Regents from being appointees of the Governor to being elected. His reasoning included tuition increases at “more than twice the rate of inflation.”

House Whip Matt Ramsey from neighboring Peachtree City has filed a proposed constitutional amendment that would limit tuition increases to the rate of inflation. The actual power to set tuition under his bill would ultimately revert to the legislature’s Higher Education committees should a request for an increase more than the annual rate of inflation be requested by the Regents.

Both bills reflect a growing public frustration with the rising cost of higher ed. And it’s clear that the costs of a university education have been increasing faster than inflation for well over a decade. The problem with both bills is that they treat the State of Georgia’s schools as if they are in an isolated market. They are not.


A decade of southern state flagship university tuition costs
A decade of southern state flagship university tuition costs

Using the flagship schools for Georgia and our neighboring states, it’s clear that we are not alone. The tuition for an in-state student at UGA has increased 147% from the 05-06 school year to this term. But tuition at the University of Tennessee has increased 180% during that same period. The Universities of Florida, Alabama, and North Carolina have increased 134%, 119%, and 110%, respectively. Only the University of South Carolina has managed to keep tuition from doubling, but their base tuition was also 58% higher than that of UGA a decade ago.

While some like to blame the HOPE scholarship for injecting the money into the University System and inflating overall prices, it’s clear that our colleges are part of a national trend. One need look little farther than the $1 trillion in outstanding student loan debt to understand that there is a pipeline of money filling all schools’ coffers.

Regents would also like to point out that the years of the sharpest tuition increases were for the 2009, 2010, and 2011 school years which were not coincidentally the toughest years of Georgia’s budget cuts. Legislators still chafe at the notion that while other state agencies made drastic cuts to services, many schools passed much of their budget cuts along to their customers in the form of higher tuition payments.

Regardless, it appears that Regents have gotten the not so subtle message of the proposed legislation. University System Chancellor Hank Huckabee announced last week that Georgia’s colleges and universities would not see a tuition increase for the 2016-2017 year. It remains to be seen whether this is enough to stave off either Stover or Ramsey’s bills, or to put any additional momentum behind the bill that would legalize casinos in Georgia – adding additional money into the University System via the HOPE program.

While legislators have the attention of college administrators, however, perhaps they should be asking for different measures. It may be difficult to maintain the quality of Georgia’s schools without matching the national market for labor talent, but perhaps Georgia could become a model for maximizing the state’s return on college investment.

Representative Jan Jones has a bill that would make it easier to keep the HOPE scholarship for students taking STEM and other harder course choices. This is a great start. The state should be investing more into graduates who will be best prepared for high paying, high demand career tracks.

The USG should go one step farther and implement mandatory career counseling and loan repayment modeling for all students beginning their freshman year. Students should be provided placement data for those in their majors, corresponding expected salaries, and a supplemental budget showing their projected discretionary income during the years they will be paying off their student loans.

Georgia is doing a good job of getting students into our universities despite the rising tuition. It’s now time to ask our colleges to match these students to majors that employers demand, or be truthful with those with who select less than lucrative options. Having students pursue majors not in demand will only set them up for a standard of living lower than the one they are experiencing on borrowed money while in school. Let’s be honest with them up front about that, rather then waiting until we hand them a diploma and payment book.

Charlie Harper is the Executive Director of PolicyBEST, a public policy think tank focused on issues of Business & Economic Development, Education, Science & Medicine, and Transportation. He’s also the publisher of GeorgiaPol.com, a website dedicated to State & Local politics of Georgia.

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