Analysis: A tuition freeze stares into the cold wind of budget math

First order of business: I got this one completely wrong.

Two weeks ago, during a segment on Boise State Public Radio’s “Idaho Matters,” I straight-up predicted there was no way Idaho’s four-year institutions could freeze tuition next year. No hedging. No “maybe,” no “probably,” no “unlikely.”

Well, no.

Little did I know — obviously— that the presidents of Boise State University, the University of Idaho, Idaho State University and Lewis-Clark State College had been talking for months behind the scenes about how to pull off a tuition freeze. The presidents and the State Board of Education announced the one-year freeze Thursday.

The presidents have looked at the math, the numbers I considered prohibitive, and have decided that it is merely daunting.

“This is not going to be easy,” said Idaho State University President Kevin Satterlee, who did most of the talking on behalf of the other presidents.

Idaho higher education is treading into some “uncertain territory,” Satterlee said. The presidents need to cut budgets, this year and next, under orders from Gov. Brad Little. (And at the University of Idaho, an underwater flagship, the cuts will keep on coming, as new President Scott Green looks to erase a $14 million shortfall.) Meanwhile, the Legislature won’t set next year’s higher education budget for at least a couple more months.

All that is known, at least for the next year, is that state universities will not try to balance their budgets by raising the cost of college for Idaho students and their parents.

As Satterlee took pains to point out, public universities get their income from two main sources: taxpayers and tuition. In Idaho, as in many states, policymakers have steadily and significantly moved the burden to students and parents.

These tuition increases inevitably make it harder for students to pursue and earn a college degree. Even in Idaho — where tuition remains near the bottom in national rankings — the presidents and the State Board are worrying about pricing some students out of the market.

So, call the freeze a $16 million gamble, since that’s how much the four institutions collected from this year’s tuition increases. The institutions are betting they can cover the foregone revenue. And perhaps attract more students next fall. And perhaps earn some goodwill with a Legislature that has hardly treated higher education lavishly.

None of the presidents wanted to touch a question I posed at Thursday’s presser: Do they think the tuition freeze will change the way legislators view the higher education budget requests next session?

But the early reviews were positive. Sen. Lori Den Hartog, R-Meridian, and Rep. Wendy Horman, R-Idaho Falls, took to Twitter to praise the freeze. The presidents even received some qualified praise from a loyal adversary, the Idaho Freedom Foundation.

“For Idaho’s public college students and their families, this is the perfect Christmas gift,” foundation President Wayne Hoffman said. “Next, the State Board of Education and the Legislature should take a close look at the administrative bloat at our four-year schools so costs remain under control for students and taxpayers for years to come.”

Complaints of “administrative bloat” aside, this year’s higher education general fund budget is up 3.5 percent from a year ago. K-12 received a 6.1 percent increase, prisons received a 3.6 percent increase and the Department of Health and Welfare received a 13.1 percent increase. And higher education received its smallest piece of the state budget pie in at least 20 years.

The one-year freeze doesn’t put universities in a budgeting bind. It only intensifies the pressure.

Coming in January: Each Thursday, Kevin Richert will offer a weekly analysis of the latest in education policy and education politics. Look for it here.

Kevin Richert

Kevin Richert

Senior reporter and blogger Kevin Richert specializes in education politics and education policy. He has more than 30 years of experience in Idaho journalism. He is a frequent guest on "Idaho Reports" on Idaho Public Television and "Idaho Matters" on Boise State Public Radio. Follow Kevin on Twitter: @KevinRichert. He can be reached at [email protected]

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