For students at Jacksonville State University who are frustrated with constant increases in tuition and new fees, good news has finally arrived. At the SGA Public Forum on Higher Education Funding held Monday, JSU President William A. Meehan announced that no tuition or fee increases will take place for the 2014-2015 school year.
“Today, they passed a budget for the university,” said Meehan. “A budget that will support us the rest of this year and a budget that will help us begin next year with no tuition increases or fee increases.”
The public forum hosted by the Student Government Association at JSU addressed funding for higher education and tuition and fees. Panel Members for the forum were Meehan, State Senator Vivian Figures, State Representative Rod Scott, and JSU Trustee Ronnie Smith.
“We have organized tonight’s events as both [an] educational and communication opportunity for the student body,” said the SGA STARS Committee Head Kenneth Smith who opened the forum. “The focus for tonight’s event is higher education funding, the cost of attendance and the future of it all.”
Students were allowed to submit questions for the panel. SGA Vice President for the Student Senate Brett A. Johnson mediated the forum and asked the panel prepared and student submitted questions.
The panel was asked a total of 12 questions that addressed various concerns and areas of higher education funding. The panel answered the questions for a full auditorium at the TMB.
“It is my belief that we as elected officials of the state of Alabama should to everything we can to adequately fund higher education,” said Figures.”As we all know, the state of Alabama, I don’t think has ever adequately funded education period.”
The Education Trust Fund for the state of Alabama finances both two-year and four-year colleges as well as K-12 education. Funds for the ETF are collected through ten different tax sources, including income, sales, and property tax.
Scott has served on the ETF for three years. “We really have never had enough money to finance education the way we really want to... Our budget went from like 6.7 billion dollars to about 5.4 billion dollars. So cuts had to be made across the board for each type of educational institution,” said Scott. “It’s a very difficult situation to be in to allocate funds when there has been a substantial cut and we absolutely is crucial for our state and as the economy recovers, and it has been recovering, hopefully we will have the funds that’s needed to provide the money that we haven’t provided over the last three or four years.”
Changes in appropriations provided by the state to higher education institution have changed the way that colleges and universities are funded.
“When I was teaching here in 1977, the state provided approximately 60 percent of the appropriations or total expenditures for the institution. This last year it was between 33 and 34 percent,” said Meehan. “What has changed, not just at JSU, but across this country, is who pays for the education, and that’s all of you. That cost that was on the government has been passed to the student, to the consumer.”
With the decrease in funding provided by the state, administrators of higher education institutions often struggle to find a balance between offering affordable education for students and providing quality services and education to students.
“We find ourselves always trying to balance the quality education that you have with the resources that we have available. I think that we have been able to meet that expectation quite well in the last few years in what [are] significantly difficult circumstances,” said Ronnie Smith.
“[There’s] nearly 13 million dollars that we’ve had to find other ways to replace without deteriorating the quality of education... In order to provide the quality of education that we’ve had we’ve increased tuition.... [Those seniors who began in 2009 were] the unfortunate population. The five years prior to 2009, we had no tuition increase, but 2009 was when the state appropriations started to decline and we’ve seen that tuition increase substantially since that point in time to today’s value of $283 per credit hour.”
Two years ago, Federal Pell grants allotted to fund education to students whose family earned a combined family income of $32,000 or less.
For the 2013-2014 school year, Pell Grants will only be awarded to students whose combined family income is $23,000 or less.
“Because of the Pell grant situation, we’re seeing a decline in enrollment,” said Smith.
Tuition and fees have seen a continuous increase nationwide. JSU managed to keep tuition and fees at a flat rate for four years, but starting in 2009 JSU students have seen constant tuition and fee increases.
“Inflation for colleges since 1978 in the United States has been 1,120 percent. That’s twice the inflation for medical care which has been about 600 percent and four times the inflation rate for the consumer price index,” said Scott.
”The burden has been placed initially on the states, where the states began to really accelerate their funding on higher education. Most recently we’ve detracted and our funding has been in decline. Now with that happening, for the first time in the history of this country, student debt has crossed one trillion dollars. That means that you all are facing the burden of paying for your education.”
The ETF funds education in the state of Alabama by splitting the budget to have thirty percent of the budget fund higher education and seventy percent of the budget fund K-12 education. The ETF budget is the largest budget in the state.
“When you look at the ETF budget, which is about 5.85 billion dollars this year, that’s almost three times the general fund budget. So the emphasis in education has been there, but it’s just not great enough.”
The panel was asked a variety of questions. One student submitted a question asking the panel how they felt about funding education through a state lottery. Meehan stated that he would support a state lottery while Smith and Figures felt that the subject should be put to a vote.
The panel was also asked by the audience how a JSU student could get the best value from their tuition and education.
“I can tell you that all of us that work here at the institution, faculty and staff, the greatest disappointment that we see is when you as students, don’t take advantage of all the opportunities that we have,” said Meehan. “This institution has over 110 million dollar budget that has been approved today. It is all for you... How do you get the money out of it? Take advantage of everything that this institution has to offer you.”
Smith and Meehan repeatedly urged students to recommend JSU to others. “Get others involved. A rising tide floats all boats,” said Meehan.
“If we can grow enrollment at this institution, get more people experiencing the JSU experience, then we can hold tuition flat. If we can continue to grow, that brings more in to the coffers and helps this institution and helps you.”
In the face of constant tuition and fee increases nationwide over the last several years, Smith expressed admiration of JSU’s ability to keep tuition flat.
“I am absolutely astounded and impressed with JSU’s ability to keep its tuition level. Prior to 2009, there had not been a college tuition increase for five years. That is exceptional for any college within this country,” said Smith.
“This year for them to hold tuition at the same rate as it was last year is absolutely exceptional. I can say that overall if the management of other institutions were as good, then we wouldn’t be experiencing the enormous amount of inflation for college tuition that we’ve had in this country.”
Figures identified the problem with education funding in Alabama as the source of ETF funds.
“I do not believe that the Education Trust Fund budget will be less [in the future], however I don’t believe that it will be increased either,” said Figures.
“The problem is in how we fund education. We fund education from sales taxes and income taxes. And as you know those things are dependent upon the economy and they will fluctuate up and down with the economy... Until we change how we fund education, so that we have revenues that are stable, we are always going to face the problems that we do.”