By Kristina Goetz
and Karen Gutierrez
The Cincinnati Enquirer
Some Northern Kentucky University students say they'd rather have larger classes and fewer full-time faculty members if that will help the college hold down tuition.
One day after president James Votruba announced his plan to recommend a 16.7 percent tuition increase to the school's board of regents, students were left wondering whether they'd have to take on additional hours at their part-time jobs or accumulate more debt in student loans.
The increase would tack on $624 to a full-time, in-state student's tuition and fee bill, making the annual cost $4,368. For nonresident students, the cost would go from $7,992 to $9,312 annually. This new price would also affect about 825 Ohioans who receive reciprocity, paying a much lower rate than other nonresidents. NKU combines tuition and fees so students have a better idea of the real cost.
Sheree Davis, an 18-year-old elementary education major, already works up to 50 hours a week at Pizza Hut and Wendy's while carrying a full load of classes. She said the university should slow down its growth and focus on the students already enrolled at NKU.
"Yes, I came to NKU because classes are smaller, but I'd be more apt to stay if it's affordable," she said. "Affordability, especially when you're paying your own tuition, is a major factor.
"That's what a lot of students are feeling right now, the uncertainty of how much tuition will go up and how they're going to pay for it."
NKU officials say they are trying to balance both affordability and academic quality at a time when the state contribution to higher education is declining. Cuts over the past three years have resulted in the highest tuition increases in NKU's history. Votruba's most recent proposal beats last year's record increase of 16.4 percent for in-state students.
Funding from the state hasn't kept up with the rapid enrollment growth NKU has experienced over the past 10 years, school officials say. And it has hasn't been enough to keep faculty and staff salaries competitive.
In fiscal years 2002 and 2003, NKU took $1.3 million in permanent cuts from the state. In late December, state officials forced NKU to take an additional $1.96 million reduction. And through a deal between Kentucky Gov. Ernie Fletcher and the state's public colleges to help remedy the state's budget shortfall, NKU must make yet another $1.95 million in one-time cuts by the end of this fiscal year, school finance officials said.
What has made the situation more frustrating for administrators and students trying to plan for the next school year is the fact that the Kentucky General Assembly closed its 2004 session last week without passing a budget.
"We expect no positive change, no increase" in state aid, Votruba told students. But "we're trying to get them back into session to get this budget approved. The longer we go, the more we're going to have to start from scratch. Right now, the stakes are enormous for NKU and the region."
The news was disheartening for local high school seniors whose college lists include NKU.
Barry Staley, a senior at Holmes High School, was dismayed to hear about the possible tuition increase. He planned to attend NKU this fall.
"If they raise their tuition, I might change my mind," the 18-year-old said. "Possibly I might consider other colleges that might be a little cheaper in tuition."
Staley's dad works at a factory and his mom at the Internal Revenue Service. Their combined income makes him ineligible for government grants. However, money is still tight, and a $624 annual increase would have to come out of his pocket, Staley said.
"I've been working since I was 16," he said. During the school year, "I'm working about 10 hours a week, but I would have to raise that to cover the cost."
He would also have to consider more student loans.
"It's going to be hectic worrying about paying off all that money," he said.
Staley's plan was to spend a year at NKU and then transfer to Western Kentucky University for its highly rated broadcasting program. In this region, a less expensive option than NKU is Gateway Community and Technical College, but Staley said it doesn't have any programs that interest him.
Holmes guidance director Elizabeth Beene says NKU's proposed tuition increase would most affect students from middle-class backgrounds. They're not wealthy, but they're not poor enough to receive grants or loans from the federal government.
"NKU has been raising their tuition for the last several years," she said. "If you go back five years, it's really dramatic, and parents and kids have not seen an increase in salaries during those five years."
Most of this year's high school seniors won't abandon college plans altogether because of the proposed tuition increase. But they might be more likely to start attending NKU and then drop out, she said.
"Kids will go ahead and go to Northern. They'll scrape money together for the first semester, but they'll be forced to work more hours, which will make them more likely to drop out," she said.
But eventually, some may decide the cost is too expensive in the short term.
"When it becomes an issue of money now versus education now, for some families, the choice will have to be earning money now rather than education," Beene said. "This is short-sighted on the state's part to not put education first, considering the number of high school and college graduates Kentucky does not have.
"We need more, not fewer."
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