UConn Must Raise Tuition to Bolster Faculty

Today, the University of Connecticut Board of Trustees will take up the issue of tuition and fees. The university administration has proposed a four-year plan to increase tuition and fees by between 6 percent and 6.75 percent each year over the next four years. Room and board rates would increase by 3 percent, making the overall cost of attending UConn rise by between 4.2 percent and 4.6 percent each year.

Raising tuition is never popular, especially in tough economic times, and questions about why it’s necessary are fair. I’ve posed some of these questions below. The answers will show that it is part of the drive to strengthen UConn, continue to provide the highest quality education to our students and maintain our position as one of Connecticut’s greatest assets.

Question: Why is UConn proposing to raise tuition?

Answer: To hire more faculty to teach more classes. Student complaints that they are unable to get the classes they need when they need them are legitimate. Consequently, students are finding it difficult to graduate in four years. And each additional semester spent as an undergrad beyond four years represents thousands of dollars in additional costs for students and families – far greater than the cost of tuition increases.

This is because enrollment at UConn has far outpaced the growth in faculty; from 1995 to 2011 undergraduate enrollment increased by 53 percent – from 14,667 to 22,472 – while the number of faculty at UConn has increased by only 16 percent – 1,148 to 1,330.

Q: Why can’t you pay for it some other way?

A: UConn, like every state agency and most other public universities, has had to cut tens of millions of dollars in recent years. Direct state support continues to shrink – it now covers 28 percent of our budget. We’re not complaining: Connecticut has invested unprecedented resources in UConn, but we have to find other ways to do what needs to be done and have very few ways to do it. (And yes, our next police chief will make much less than the outgoing chief; we are committed to having administrative salaries that are on a par with those at similar universities.)

Q: Isn’t UConn’s tuition too high already?

A. No. UConn’s cost has to be compared to the cost of other universities. Tuition and fees for UConn right now are $10,670. The University of Rhode Island, the University of Massachusetts, Rutgers, the University of New Hampshire, the University of Vermont and Penn State University all charge their in-state students more than Connecticut does – as high as $15,000 a year. Among the top 53 public universities, UConn ranks 26th on the list when it comes to cost, or right in the middle. And private schools? Many cost $30,000 to $40,000 a year or more.

And UConn is a top 20 public school, providing Connecticut students with a high-value degree at a comparatively low cost when you look at those schools we aspire to be like.

Q: But what about the people who can’t afford to go to UConn?

A: About three-quarters of UConn students get some form of financial aid – grants, loans, scholarships – both need-based and merit-based. Next year, 20 cents of every net tuition dollar will go to need-based aid. And for the very neediest, the university meets all their direct costs. An excellent student accepted to UConn not being able to attend the university because they are poor is an anathema to us. And we do whatever we can to ensure that doesn’t happen.

Q: How about not raising tuition and just not hiring the faculty you need?

A: Professors in the classroom are a university’s bedrock; the more you have, the better you serve your students who need guidance and support. Connecticut traveled a long distance and made UConn the great public institution it is, so we can’t slide backward now after so much progress. Our state decided it wanted a great university for its sons and daughters, not a second-rate place to just grab a diploma.

Let’s not create a “tale of two cities” where the privileged get high-quality education in private institutions and those who attend public universities get big classes and mediocrity. UConn must be reasonably priced, with support for every single truly needy student. But it must also be a beacon of academic excellence and achievement, leading the nation and creating the next great generation of Americans.

This commentary by President Herbst was published in the Hartford Courant on Dec. 18.