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What is driving the high cost of higher education in general—and a UNH education in particular?

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Sidebar: Two Sons, Eight Years of Tuition Checks: A UNH Family Weighs Value and Cost

You can count on it every summer, like crabgrass and mosquitoes. The beginning of a new fiscal year brings another announcement from UNH that tuition is going up—6.9 percent last year, 6.9 percent the year before that, 7 percent the year before that. Not since 1974 has UNH had a year without a tuition increase for out-of-state students, and not since 1989 for in-state students. Just over the past five years, the cost of attending the university has increased by 38 percent for New Hampshire residents and 34 percent for out-of-state students. The consumer price index went up only 14 percent over the same period. So what's going on?

Price Tag, illustration by Randy Lyhus/Laughing Stock

It's a good question—but the situation at UNH is not unique. You could ask the same question about any public college or university in the country. Higher education has been becoming less affordable for students and their families for years. According to a report published last year by the College Board, tuition and fees at public four-year institutions have been rising at an average annual rate of 4.2 percent after inflation over the past decade. The report confirms the widespread perception that college costs are rising more rapidly than the prices of other goods and services. "This is not a new phenomenon, but one that has persisted over the entire 30-year period documented here," the report notes.

Prices have increased steadily at both public and private institutions, but the rate of increase has been greatest at public four-year universities like UNH, largely because states have been cutting back on their share of university operating costs. Although state appropriations for higher education have gone up, the increases have not kept pace with inflation and growth in enrollment. As a result, state support per student has actually declined. Over the last 30 years, the state's share of UNH expenses has been cut roughly in half.

"The primary cause of tuition increases in public institutions is not increased spending, but rather cost-shifting to replace losses in state appropriations and other revenues. In public research institutions, 92 percent of revenues from tuition increases since 2002 have resulted from shifts in costs," according to a new report on college spending by the Delta Project on Postsecondary Education Costs, Productivity and Accountability, an independent nonprofit in Washington, D.C.

With costs going up and states paying a shrinking share of the bills, public colleges and universities are caught in a financial vise. UNH, for example, has to pay for salaries and benefits, supplies, utilities, maintenance of more than 300 buildings (some more than a hundred years old), a share of University System of New Hampshire costs, and a host of other fairly inflexible expenses—and those bills keep going up. A few examples:

  • The cost of health insurance for faculty and staff—a $40 million expense—increased by more than 12 percent between 2007 and 2008, and has been growing at double-digit rates every year since 2000.

  • Utilities are an increasing expense, growing at an annual rate of more than 12 percent since 2004, even though UNH has been recognized by both the U.S. Department of Energy and the Environmental Protection Agency as a leader in energy efficiency among colleges and universities.

  • Needed maintenance and repairs on buildings have been postponed for decades. A recent report projected that the university will need more than $600 million over the next 15 years to catch up. That's $40 million a year. Right now, UNH is able to budget only about $15 million for that purpose, so it is rapidly losing ground.

All of that money has to come from somewhere. Whatever isn't covered by state and federal funds or private support from alumni, corporate donors and charitable foundations has to come from the tuition and fees paid by students and their families.

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