By Laurel Rosenhall
Published: Tuesday, Nov. 2, 2010 – 12:00 am | Page 1A

Despite getting a hefty increase in state funding this year, California State University is considering tuition hikes that would bump student costs by a combined 15.5 percent between this fall and next – on top of a 32 percent rise last year.

The University of California also raised fees 32 percent last year, and is expected to discuss another increase in the weeks ahead.

The trend isn’t unique to California – it’s going on nationwide. Inflation and personal income were almost flat across the nation during the past 12 months. Yet at the same time that people across the country are taking pay cuts or seeing salaries frozen, the price of college continues to leapfrog in the double digits.

What’s going on?

Part of it is explained by state budget cuts: As cash-strapped states like California cut funding for public universities, the institutions are turning to students and parents to make up the difference.

But the cost of college had been hurtling upward long before the current financial crisis started. A recent report by the College Board found that in the 1980s, public colleges raised tuition each year by an average of 4.2 percent above the rate of inflation. Over the past decade, that number climbed to 5.6 percent.

“There has been dramatic expansion in higher education, and these are institutions that are very labor-intensive,” said Sandy Baum, a consultant who worked on the College Board’s report analyzing costs.

The majority of a college’s budget goes toward compensation, she said, but other than putting more students in a classroom, most universities haven’t found ways to become more efficient.

The rising price of health care contributes to skyrocketing tuition, since universities typically provide better-than-average benefits to their employees, Baum said.

And over time, universities are educating more students, offering more programs of study, expanding facilities and spending more on technology.

“It’s not that they’re spending more to produce exactly the same thing, they’re really producing something very different,” Baum said.

Expansion is part of the reason CSU is considering tuition increases. The 23 campuses in the system plan to enroll an additional 30,000 students this spring using a combination of state and federal money to hire more instructors and offer more classes.

Some of the money – $106 million from the federal stimulus package – is considered one-time funding that the university doesn’t expect to receive next year.

“But the students we’re letting in are not ‘one-time,’ ” said Robert Turnage, assistant vice chancellor for budget at CSU.

In other words: Most of the students CSU admits this spring to meet new enrollment targets tied to the increased funding will still be at school in the fall.

And so comes the double-edged reality of university financing: Schools admit more students one year with a surge in public funding, but they must charge students more the next year so they can stay.

“It’s the absolute essential nature of finding a way to replace those one-time revenues,” Turnage said.

CSU trustees are considering a 5 percent increase for the spring semester and an additional 10 percent increase next fall, which would make next fall’s cost 15.5 percent higher than this fall’s.

That would bring the annual tuition for a full-time undergraduate to $4,884 in the fall, not including fees charged by individual campuses that are typically around $950.

If the increases are approved, tuition at California’s largest university system will have jumped 76 percent over the last five years.

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