University presidents tie tuition freeze to higher ed budget

Idaho’s university presidents want to make a deal with the Legislature.

If lawmakers approve Gov. Brad Little’s higher education budget, the presidents will extend Idaho’s tuition freeze for a second year.

The presidents made the pledge in a joint news release Wednesday, sent out by the State Board of Education. Their announcement comes two days after Little proposed restoring $15.4 million cut from higher education this year — and increasing funding by $8.2 million for the budget year that begins July 1.

“(We) recognize the increased financial challenges that we all are facing, and will do our part to keep tuition affordable and education accessible,” Boise State University President Marlene Tromp said in the news release.

University of Idaho President C. Scott Green and Idaho State University President Kevin Satterlee signed on as well.

“We recognize that the cost of education is still a barrier to entry for many of our potential students,” Green said.

“Ensuring access and opportunity to higher education for all Idahoans is critical,” Satterlee said. “Affordability for students is key in that regard.”

The presidents’ joint statement ups the ante in the higher education funding debate — weeks before a possible showdown on the House floor.

Last March, House conservatives killed two versions of the 2020-21 higher education budget on the floor, complaining that the spending plan was bloated, and saying universities were squandering money on divisive and unnecessary diversity and inclusion programs. A third version of a higher ed budget finally passed the House and sailed through the Senate unanimously.

But if anything, the balance of power in the House shifted even further to the right in the 2020 elections, meaning a higher education budget could face even more turbulence on the House floor.

Little’s proposal would put $315.2 million of general fund tax dollars into higher ed next year. That’s an $8.2 million increase over the higher ed budget that ultimately passed in 2020.

In December 2019 — before the 2020 Legislature battled over higher education spending, and before the coronavirus pandemic played havoc with college and university budgets and enrollment — the state’s four-year institutions agreed to freeze in-state undergraduate tuition and fees. It was the first time the universities froze tuition in at least 40 years.

That one-year freeze is in effect for the current school year.

But while the freeze could continue at the universities in 2021-22, Lewis-Clark State College says it will not be able to freeze tuition for a second year. Staffing is at a 10-year low while the college is serving the third-highest enrollment numbers in its history, President Cynthia Pemberton said in a statement Wednesday.

“I commend our sister institutions on their continued efforts to serve Idahoans and serve them well,” she said. “(However), we are more lean than is sustainable. The only viable lever within our control is tuition.”

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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