March 11, 2008

Long road to nowhere: Students plan walkout amid tuition-hike speculation, while universities expect the worst.

This is wrong.The blossoming of spring in the Bluegrass brings with it the seasonal issue of tuition increases at Kentucky colleges and universities. Anticipating the impact of a looming double-digit increase spawned by an economic crisis in the commonwealth, a group of University of Louisville students plan a protest for March 26. The walkout is set to begin at 1:11 p.m. and is being led by a student-run group called the Progressive Action Coalition, which hopes the action, followed by a rally at “The Thinker” statue outside Grawemeyer Hall, will draw at least 500 students, faculty and community supporters.“If state funding is cut, tuition should stay in line with inflation,” said Sarah Maddix, a member of the group. Maddix told LEO that students understand state government does a poor job funding the university, but that the U of L administration should take a stronger stance on freezing or easing tuition costs. “If student tuition provides 40 percent of U of L’s budget, the single vote on the U of L Board of Trustees by the Student Government Association president is not adequate representation,” she said. Sadly, the news coverage of the annual musical chairs among state government, universities and students has become a predictable human wreck. Media outlets find one quote from a student bound for financial expulsion. Behind those single sentences are oceans of stories with hundreds of students working two jobs to pay for living expenses on top of college costs, or amassing lifelong debt that will haunt and taunt them into old age. It should never become easy to hear stories of smart, qualified and committed students getting forced out of college, but flip through enough archives on tuition increases and you’ll see that story is customary.Eventually, a university spokesperson or provost or president offering condolences steps forward to say, “No one wants to raise tuition.” Yet in-state tuition at Kentucky universities has jumped 83 percent since the 2001-2002 academic year, according to a report released last year by State Auditor Crit Luallen. Part of the reason for those apparently involuntary spasms is the pursuit of national benchmarks that are consistently starved for proper revenue — the sacrifice of academics for the business of academia.This compounding statewide failure inevitably compels a voter or two, more than likely parents of a prospective Kentucky college student, to color Frankfort’s political makeup in the House, Senate or governor’s office differently. Voters in November’s gubernatorial election had no public forewarning about the impending budget shortfall, now projected at $900 million over the 2008-2010 biennium. The usual Kentucky Democrats or Republicans seem woefully inadequate when it comes to resolving what may be one of the steepest tuition hikes in over a decade.Think of it this way. When hundreds of students from across Kentucky expressed their voluble dissent, amassing last month in the hallways of the Capitol, they met Gov. Steve Beshear face to face. This would seem, if there were ever such a moment, Beshear’s time to take a declarative step. The governor said he had to make tough choices after inheriting a fiscal nightmare. Less the a month after taking office, he warned Kentucky universities of a needed emergency budget cut of 3 percent by the end of the year, and alerted them of a possible 12-percent cut to follow.Given recent political developments, Beshear’s plea to the audience — to lobby state legislators — was uninspiring and tinted with irony: The governor punctuated his remarks with discussion of a possible revenue alternative, a savior, the big suggestion voters heard throughout his campaign about his now-stillborn casino gambling amendment. With a straight face, the Governor of Kentucky told the state’s best and brightest that gambling was the solvent resolution to their tuition woes.Presently, neither the House nor Senate have passed a state budget that the Council on Postsecondary Education can review for any tuition recommendations to the universities. Even though there’s a long way to go on the budget process, the outlook from the universities is not blindly optimistic.“We are trying to figure out what we’re going to be dealing with,” John Drees, a spokesman for the University of Louisville, told LEO. “The cut for higher education is quite significant and it could very well have a damaging effect on students.”To be sure, the dreadful revenue forecast presents a delicate situation for all Kentuckians, not just the elected and university leaders who are tasked with dealing with it. Perhaps, for a change, those leaders should consider a long-road vision that invests in the most realistic future the state has: its educated masses.  Contact the writer at citystrobe@leoweekly.com