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Published: Thursday, 4/19/2012

College business

BLADE STAFF

Colleges and universities, in Ohio and across the country, are scrambling to find ways to replace cuts in state aid to higher education. The ideas they've come up with are frequently creative -- and generally hated by students.

People who attended college in the turbulent 1960s complain that students today are not as committed to social justice as their counterparts nearly a half-century ago. But when the issue is the rising cost of higher education, 21st-century students are quick to join the barricades.

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According to PBS' NewsHour, higher education funding was cut by $5 billion nationally last year. Some states, such as California, offset cuts with double-digit tuition increases. Others, such as Georgia, slashed college programs and eliminated whole departments.

In response to reductions in state funding since 2008, California's Santa Monica College has cut nearly 15 percent of its courses. Last month, college trustees came up with what they call a unique solution: a two-tiered fee system.

Students would be charged $200 a credit to have a private foundation offer more sections of classes that are filled. Students who sign up for courses before classes fill up now pay $36 a credit hour; that fee will rise to $46 this summer.

Outraged students tried to push their way into a trustee meeting. Campus police pepper-sprayed the protesters. Bad public relations ensued, and the plan was tabled, at least for now.

At Kent State University, officials wanted to borrow $170 million to renovate campus buildings to preserve "academic program quality," said Gregg Floyd, the university's senior vice president for finance and administration. Tuition and general fee hikes weren't allowed, so KSU decided the fairest way to repay the loan was to charge students more for using the facilities the most -- students who take more than 17 hours a semester next year, dropping to 16 hours the year after.

Among Ohio's 11 largest four-year public universities, only Kent, Miami University, and Ohio State University do not charge an overload fee. The University of Toledo charges $330 a credit above 16 hours; Bowling Green State University charges $200 an hour above 18 credits.

KSU students protested. They said that students affected by the change should have been consulted. They complained they were being penalized for working hard and trying to graduate early.

But the truth is simpler: Higher education is big business. Success is measured, in part, by attracting the best students. And that means competing to offer the most spectacular facilities -- from science and computer labs to dormitories and recreation centers.

Somebody must pay to attract the best of next year's high school seniors. KSU Provost Todd Diacon told student medium kentwired.com: "The state is not going to bear the cost of higher education, but the users are. And you are the users."

Students at Santa Monica won, for now, because college officials overreached for something entirely new that would affect thousands of students. They also won because campus police overreacted.

At KSU, protesters likely will lose because the fee is not unique and will touch only a small percentage of students. They should protest the funding system that make fees such as this necessary.



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