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Ohio universities freeze tuition amid concern over college costs

In response to ballooning student loan debt, which now exceeds $1 trillion nationwide, a new trend is emerging this year: universities voluntarily freezing tuition.

The presidents of three of Ohio’s largest universities, Ohio State, the University of Cincinnati and the University of Toledo, say students and their families need relief. They join several local private institutions, including Wittenberg, Urbana and Antioch Midwest universities, in announcing plans to keep costs level for students next school year.

Other colleges will discuss tuition increases in June, amid growing public concerns about the rising costs of higher education. Ohio ranks seventh in the nation for the average debt of its graduates, now $28,683, according to the Project on Student Loan Debt. The state ranks ninth with 68 percent of students who borrow for college, according to the nonprofit.

“The polls are really starting to show resentment toward higher education,” said Patrick Callan, president of the Higher Education Policy Institute in San Jose, Calif. “People think we are passing all our financial problems on to students and families, and they’re very worried about student debt.”

Callan said the ability of students to borrow during the last 25 years is partly behind the rising cost of college. The loans can cover tuition, housing, meals, books, transportation and other expenses.

“We kind of let this issue drift for 25 years and now it’s starting to catch up to us,” Callan said. “Year by year, it became the easy way out: Raise tuition, try to find some money for the poorest students and then let the middle class borrow. Now we have a generation in their 20s, 30s and early 40s for whom, increasingly, student debt overshadows every decision they make.”

Tuition increases limited to inflation

With families demanding affordability, Ohio colleges are adjusting to new economic realities. Ohio will likely cap tuition increases by public colleges to 2 percent (the rate of inflation) or $188, whichever is greater, when state lawmakers approve the budget in June. Locally, these colleges have approved annual increases for next year: Wright State University ($188), Central State ($94), Clark State Community College ($97.50) and Sinclair ($100). OSU and UC will vote in June to freeze tuition for in-state undergraduates.

Toledo president Lloyd Jacobs said freezing tuition, room and board prices is a “commitment” and comes with challenges. To help the budget, Toledo has asked faculty to teach more classes and has slowed hiring, he said. However, he said freezing costs for students is “the right thing to do.”

And it’s an example he hopes other schools will follow.

Cincinnati President Santa Ono has pledged to help the university’s budget by controlling his own spending and declining any bonuses or raises to his $525,000 salary this year. He also asked the university to sell the $2 million president’s condo, where he does not live, to create a scholarship fund.

Ono said he feels it is important to “lead by example” and control his own expenses by always flying coach when traveling, driving himself or taking taxis instead of limousines and avoiding “fancy hotels.” He has asked his senior staff members to do the same.

“Every $10,000 savings is potentially a full scholarship for a student,” he said. “Everything that we can do to contain the cost of an education, I think, is our responsibility. It’s a real struggle for families to afford an education, even as it costs today.”

OSU’s decision to freeze tuition comes as the latest figures show President E. Gordon Gee’s $1.9 salary ranked third among U.S. public colleges for 2011-2012 fiscal year, according to The Chronicle of Higher Education.

Gee oversees a $5 billion a year operation with 65,000 students and 40,000 employees, but his tenure has not been without missteps. Last year, the newspaper detailed how Gee has spent more than $7.7 million since October 2007 on travel, housing, parties and entertainment.

Leading the way

The University of Dayton this year has received national attention for being among the first schools to provide financial aid letters that inform students their exact costs to attend all four years, instead of annual costs. UD also launched a cost guarantee for new students, promising their financial aid will grow dollar-for-dollar with any tuition increases during their four years.

UD even eliminated all fees, which are sometimes a surprise to families and can contribute thousands of dollars college expenses and create unplanned debt, said Sundar Kumarasamy, vice president of enrollment management and marketing. Surprise fees previously could amount to as much as $3,000 in a year, Kumarasamy said. UD’s tuition next year will be $35,800 with no fees.

Other universities are searching for ways to operate more efficiently with the revenue they have. UD and Wright State have launched wellness programs to help cut down on health care costs for employees.

WSU will also receive new revenue from companies it hired to improve energy consumption on campus and provide food services. The university has also joined with Clark State and Central State to negotiate better prices on printing services; and WSU expects to save as much as $500,000 a year, said Mark Polatajko, vice president for business and fiscal affairs and university treasurer.

Miami University is continuing a three-year effort to cut expenses. The university has cut more than $45 million from its budget since fiscal year 2010 and will reduce expenses another $9.5 million this year and $6.4 million for 2015, according to David Creamer, vice president for finance and business services and treasurer. However, Creamer said Miami will not be able to accomplish its long-term goals by only being more efficient, and so the university will search for new revenue sources.

He added that Miami is working to hold annual tuition increases to around 2 percent over the next decade to provide predictable prices for families.

“We’re trying to find a way to adapt,” he said. “Even once the economy improves, there will be continued expectations about affordability.”

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