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2011 October 3 - 12:00 am

MONEY TREE: Ark. Tuition Jumps at Rate Higher than Inflation

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) — All but six of Arkansas’ 32 public colleges and universities raised tuition and mandatory fees at rates greater than inflation between 2005 and 2010, at times because they knew an institution down the road was raising its prices as well, according to a state audit.

A study of tuition and fees, presented to a legislative panel, showed that schools raised fees when state appropriations dropped, to provide more amenities in on-campus housing and to fund generous health insurance packages for faculty and staff. Recent expenditures also included new food courts, workout rooms and indoor basketball courts.

“... Once one institution completes the upgrades, other area institutions are quick to follow in order to appeal to the greatest number of potential students touring the campus,” according to the review presented to the Legislative Joint Auditing Committee.

But the school that raised tuition and fees by the highest percentage since 2005 — National Park Community College in Hot Springs had a 78.9 percent increase — said it needed more money to update its buildings and expand programs as it moved in a new direction.

President Sally Carder said trustees shelved their goal to be the lowest-priced two-year college in Arkansas in the mid-2000s and instead directed the school’s leadership to expand. Tuition and fees went up, as did enrollment. NPCC focuses on health care plus other trades in which graduates can find jobs quickly.

“We’ve concentrated on job demand in our area,” Carder said. “What kind of programs do we need to offer so they can go straight to work? That’s why we have welding and carpentry and heating and air.

“We closed our machining program because we couldn’t get enough people for it. We closed recreation. We turn graduates out within two years, but they were finding they couldn’t get a job in recreation,” Carder said.

Auditors said that while the Consumer Price Index climbed 11.6 percent between July 2005 and June 2010, 26 public colleges and universities raised tuition at a higher rate. NPCC’s figures are for the years 2005-09 because its 2010-11 audit isn’t completed yet.

The smallest increase was at Black River Technical College in Pocahontas and Paragould, which raised tuition and fees by 5.8 percent.

Doug Spencer of the Division of Legislative Audit told the committee that, in Arkansas, institutions of higher education influence each other. If one raises salaries, the college down the road does the same to stay competitive.

“Institutions tend to survey each other in setting their tuition rates,” Spencer told legislators.

Also, because an education at a state institution is often so much cheaper than a private institution, a public college can raise rates without fearing that they’ll lose prospective student to nearby private colleges, the auditors’ report said.

Sen. Jimmy Jeffress, D-Crossett, said the review should have highlighted that, despite tuition increases, many colleges still do more with less. The data showed Arkansas-Pine Bluff and Arkansas-Monticello had increases of 12.7 percent and 21.5 percent, but the two remain among the least-expensive public four-year colleges in the state.

In National Park Community College’s case, tuition climbed from $1,230 in 2005 to $2,200 in 2009-10.

The auditors noted the increases helped raise salaries to market levels, fund critical maintenance, address a 53 percent increase in the number of students and increase the number of programs offered. Mandatory fees were added or increased to upgrade buildings, install or replace computers and support registration, student activities and a testing center.

Carder said the state’s support per full-time-equivalent student has dropped, and tuition helps make up some of the difference. The auditors said state money makes up 51 percent of the college’s budget, federal funds make up 26 percent and tuition and fees account for 11 percent.

All four-year schools raised tuition at a rate greater than inflation. Arkansas-Fort Smith saw tuition and fees go up 62.5 percent between 2005 and 2010, but it switched from a two-year to a four-year school. Of long-standing four-year schools, Southern Arkansas at Magnolia saw prices rise 41.4 percent.

Comments: ccweekblog

Also from KELLY P. KISSEL, Associated Press

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