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July 27, 2014

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Some say setting fees every two years gives universities a blank check

Students don’t realize big hikes are possible halfway to graduation

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Leila Navidi

James Robertson, a fourth-year student in UNLV’s law and MBA program, studies in the law library. The law school wants to double in-state students’ registration fees — a $7,700 increase — by 2010-11. Those who are already enrolled would pay half the hike in 2009-10.

Beyond the Sun

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A student walks into the William S. Boyd School of Law building on the UNLV campus. Law students’ registration fees may double by 2010-11.

A freshman who entered UNLV in fall 2007 knew registration fees for a full load would be $3,503 his first year and $3,885 his second.

The price tags for the remaining years of his college education were mysteries.

Students often assume fees will rise gradually during their time in college. Schools, however, are not legally obligated to keep increases measured.

Which brings up the question of how much of a moral obligation schools have to keep fee hikes manageable for students who are already enrolled.

When officials at UNLV’s law school proposed doubling fees for in-state students by 2010-11, they wanted to soften the blow for existing students. So they recommended that those already enrolled pay half of a $7,700 increase proposed for 2009-10. (In Nevada, in-state students pay registration fees instead of tuition. They also pay additional campus-based fees.)

“We need to be mindful that higher education — regardless of the fact that it’s a bargain — is not cheap when you’re cutting the check,” said Dan Klaich, executive vice chancellor of the Nevada System of Higher Education. “Students and parents budget, and I think we need to be mindful that we can’t just go out and break their budgets.”

For Regent Steve Sisolak, whose daughter attends UNLV, that means giving students and parents more time to plan.

The Board of Regents sets fees for two years at a time. For example, in April, regents will vote on hikes for the school years that begin in 2009 and 2010.

That will give students about a year and a half to plan before those increases kick in — not enough time, Sisolak says.

Ideally, he said, schools would provide information on the cost of education spanning the next four or five years, the time it takes a full-time student to graduate.

“We need to be more prudent in having consistent increases that are more gradual and restrained,” he said.

University fees rose between 7 and 11 percent each of the past five years.

In Nevada, up to 50 percent of fee increases go to financial aid, most of it need-based.

But Sisolak worries about how increases affect middle-class families that make too much to qualify for aid yet can’t afford to pay out of pocket for college.

Though the hikes regents will consider in April for most students roughly track inflation, higher education officials say, even after that, regents could vote to raise fees significantly more.

Currently, 64 percent of fee increases go to the state-funded higher education budget, which lawmakers control. Schools retain direct control over 36 percent of the new money.

Klaich and other officials say they would like to see campuses hold on to 100 percent of fee increases beyond inflation. If the Legislature agrees to a plan along those lines, “it opens the door for a discussion on the (university) campuses as to what level of tuition could be supported and tolerated,” Klaich said.

In other words, fees at UNLV and UNR could rise quite a bit more than inflation in the next biennium.

Unlike Sisolak, Klaich thinks the current system of approving fees for two years at a time gives students adequate time to plan their budgets. Fixing fees beyond two years could tie administrators’ hands when they need more money, Klaich said.

The University of California system, for example, was ordered by a California court to refund tens of millions of dollars to students in professional programs after breaking a promise to keep fees steady during the duration of their enrollment. The UC system has since backed away from that policy, spokesman Ricardo Vazquez said.

UNLV President David Ashley said if higher education officials knew more about how much money Nevada would give their institutions in the future, they could provide students with more information about fee increases down the line.

In California, the state’s two university systems came to a six-year agreement with the governor detailing funding levels for higher education and recommendations regarding student fee increases.

A multiyear plan would be helpful, but “I don’t know if we’ve got the political will to do that,” Ashley said.

And such an agreement wouldn’t guarantee state support. With California experiencing a revenue shortfall, its governor has called for budget cuts that would put funding below levels outlined in that state’s compact.

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