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By Richard C. McGinity
It has been an amazing decade for the University of Wyoming.
Due to the commitment of state elected officials and the generosity of private donors, UW’s physical facilities have seen a remarkable transformation, with more than 1 million square feet of new, state-of-the art spaces for instruction and research. There have been investments in programs in energy, engineering, health sciences, business, life sciences, education and computational sciences that promise to lift the university to new heights of excellence. And while other public universities have resorted to large tuition increases and significant budget cuts in response to declining state funding, UW’s tuition has risen only slightly, due in large measure to the financial support of the Legislature and the governor.
Further progress at UW has been hampered to some degree because of two rounds of belt-tightening driven by reductions in state funding of 10 percent in 2009 and 6 percent in the current biennium. We have lost some of our best and brightest faculty members due to a four-year period of no state funding for employee pay raises. But the fact remains that Wyoming’s support for its only four-year institution of higher education, as measured in state spending per student, is among the highest in the nation. That’s not to mention the Hathaway Scholarship Program, which annually helps thousands of Wyoming high school graduates attend UW and community colleges.
The just-concluded legislative session provided an initial boost for UW’s efforts to narrow the salary gap with our competitors, which is important for the university to attract and retain the best in their fields. Legislators also continued investments in facilities while providing matching dollars for some key initiatives. But there was a clear, accompanying message from lawmakers this year: Don’t expect the Legislature to meet all of the university’s needs.
And those needs are significant. The university faces increasing maintenance costs from both our new and aging buildings; a continuing need for technological improvements; rising utility costs; a need for improved laboratory equipment and supplies; and a demand for more library collections to meet the needs of students and faculty members. Having cut $22.7 million in the current biennium in response to the latest 6 percent reduction in state funding -- including the elimination of 54 faculty and staff positions through attrition -- the university simply doesn’t have the remaining internal reserves to address these needs.
Given the expectation that UW must find funding on its own to address its most pressing needs, the university has additional incentive to step up its pursuit of research funding and more private gifts. That we are doing. But in continuing our efforts to become one of the nation’s premier land-grant and flagship universities, we have little choice but to examine another revenue source: student tuition and fees.
In the coming days, the UW Board of Trustees will discuss the possibility of moderate annual tuition increases over the next several years. As an example, a 4 percent tuition increase would be $120 for a full-time resident student in the 2014-15 academic year. I should also note that a student fee increase of $91 also is under consideration for 2014-15, meaning the total bill for tuition and fees for full-time residents could rise from $4,404 to $4,615 under this scenario.
This proposal hasn’t come about without strong deliberation. Any increase will hit students and families where it hurts -- in the wallet. Nevertheless, it has become clear that UW must explore modest tuition increases for next year and on into the future.
Any discussion about tuition must start by noting just how affordable UW really is. Tuition for resident undergraduates is the lowest, by far, of all public, doctoral degree-granting institutions in the country, and tuition for nonresident undergraduates is among the lowest. Just follow this link and take a look at a compilation of resident tuition and fees charged by the 173 public doctoral institutions in the country: https://www.uwyo.edu/newssupport/newshighres/documents/2014/03/botpage6.pdf. You'll find UW in the lower right-hand corner, last on the list, and well behind the 172nd-ranked institution, North Carolina A&T State University. Remarkably, UW could raise resident tuition and fees by $1,000, and we would still be the least expensive such institution in the country. As it is, the possible $211 increase described above for 2014-15, along with modest annual increases in subsequent years, would almost certainly not move UW off the bottom of that list. We would remain an incredible bargain and a first-rate public, doctoral-degree granting institution.
In recent years, the university has approached tuition increases on a yearly or biennial basis. We took into account the state’s financial picture and the ebb and flow of significant state support from the governor and the Legislature as circumstances allowed, and we were mindful of the constitutional charge to keep costs down for our students. There have been tuition increases for Wyoming resident undergraduates in some years, but no increases in others. Such an approach allows the university to respond to the up-and-down conditions of the state’s energy-based economy, but it provides little predictability for students and families making financial plans. Any moderate, multiyear proposal for tuition increases would eliminate that uncertainty, while recognizing the encouragement from legislators for the university to recognize highly uncertain state revenue projections for the coming decade or so.
In considering tuition increases, the key is to balance educational needs with student debt. Part of achieving that balance is working closely with the UW Foundation to increase scholarship funding to offset the impact of increasing costs. In fact, the average UW resident student currently receives scholarships and other financial aid (not loans) roughly equal to 100 percent of his or her tuition and fees. UW must and does pay attention to both sides of the equation.
Of course, another major consideration is the Wyoming Constitution’s provision that the cost of attending UW be “as nearly free as possible.” We do not take that mandate lightly. Through all of these discussions, there is little doubt that attending UW is and will remain a bargain when compared to other universities across the West, and the nation as a whole.
The actions of the Legislature both this year and in previous years help to answer the constitutional directive to keep UW affordable, even as the university has tightened its belt in response to gubernatorial and legislative action. Our task now is to work to combine the directive of affordability with the legislative assumption that UW must find additional financial resources.