WASHINGTON - Arizona’s four-year public universities posted some of the nation’s largest percentage increases in tuition from 2007 to 2010, according to a report Thursday from the U.S. Department of Education.
The state’s three campuses saw tuition rise between 36 and 38 percent, putting the state’s schools in the top 5 percent in the nation for the relative size of their increases.
Arizona State University was tied for the 22nd-biggest increase, at 38 percent; Northern Arizona University was tied for 26th, with a 37 percent increase; and the University of Arizona’s 36 percent increase was tied for 30th.
Despite the increases, Arizona’s in-state tuition was still near the middle of the pack for public colleges nationwide. The most expensive four-year public university in the country was Penn State, charging $14,416, according to the first-ever report by the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES). The national average was $6,397.
The Arizona Board of Regents defended the increases Thursday as necessary during a time of rising enrollment and decreasing state funding for the state’s universities.
“Between fiscal year 2008-2012, the Arizona university system has sustained $428 million in state funding reductions, $230 million of which came during the time frame studied by the NCES,” Katie Paquet, a spokeswoman for the regents, said in a prepared statement. “The system also saw a 14.6 percent increase in enrollment over that same time period.
“Tuition increases were required to partially mitigate the reduction in state support and to meet the increase in student demand,” her statement said.
She said Arizona’s universities were “below the median rate for tuition and fees” in the current year when compared to their institutional peers, schools that she said the board looks to when setting tuition rates.
Advocates agreed that higher tuition at schools across the country points to reduced state support and the need for schools to make up the difference in tough economic times.
“Many states are facing a funding crisis at the state level, though it’s a national problem,” said Barry Toiv, a spokesman at the Association of American Universities. “When states reduce funding for their universities, they have no choice but to raise tuition. I think that it’s playing out in a particularly serious way in Arizona.”
Students in California and Pennsylvania were even harder hit: 23 of the 32 fastest increases were in California, and 22 of the 32 highest public tuitions were in Pennsylvania.
“Practically every campus of the Cal State system showed as a high percentage. Penn State had high numbers,” said R. Michael Tanner, vice president of the Association of Public and Land Grant Universities. “If you go look at those two, both of them have had to deal with sizeable decreases in state support.”
Tanner, who spent 17 years as an academic administrator at the University of California Santa Cruz and the University of Illinois at Chicago, said choices on tuition are not easy.
“I’ve spent a lot of time being in those meetings where you have to decide the balance between budgets and tuition,” Tanner said. “Tuition increases are a part of a complex balancing, and the reduction of state support changes that.”
Toiv said he felt the percentage increase numbers for tuition reported by NCES could be “a little misleading.”
“If you start from a low point (in tuition), any increase will make a big difference,” he said.
The lists do not include current tuition charges and are based on data universities report yearly to the federal government. The lists are broken down into sections — private, public, for-profit and community colleges.
New federal law says the 530 universities with the fastest-rising published tuitions and net prices will have to explain to the Education Department why the costs increased and how the schools will reduce them. Education Secretary Arne Duncan was quoted in USA Today Thursday as saying he hopes publishing the data publicly will help better prepare families for college.
Paquet said Arizona universities are “committed to ensuring affordable access to a high-quality education for all qualified students.” The universities are required to set aside 17 percent of all tuition and fees for need-based financial aid, her statement said.
“The university system also offers students a broad range of bachelor’s degree pathways in partnership with community colleges and alternative campus locations that can significantly reduce the cost of obtaining a bachelor’s degree,” she said in her statement.