The deal that Gov. Bob Taft struck with university presidents in February to keep fall tuition increases under 10 percent was heralded by some as a small victory in the battle to keep college affordable.
Three months later, the governor's office is questioning whether some colleges are trying to circumvent the spirit of the deal.
Every public university in Ohio has kept its word by not hiking fall tuition and fees for returning students by more than 10 percent over the previous academic term, within allowed exceptions for debt service.
What many universities have done, however, is approve midyear increases effective in the winter, spring, or summer.
The net effect is that tuition stays under the 10 percent ceiling compared with the previous term, but for the year is over that ceiling.
The University of Toledo did just that with a 3.7 percent hike in the summer and a 10.3 percent in the fall that included debt service. So did the University of Cincinnati (3 percent increase in the winter, 3 percent in the spring, 9.5 percent in the fall) and others.
Bowling Green State University, having approved a summer increase, could follow suit when it sets fall tuition next month.
Ohio State, Ohio, and Miami universities are among the few that did not, but the first two did choose to boost tuition for new students, as permitted by the agreement.
Mr. Taft could not be reached for comment, but a spokeswoman said this violates the spirit, if not the letter, of the understanding.
“The governor believes that when he made that agreement, the agreement was to keep it under 10 percent for this year - for the entire year,” said spokeswoman Mary Anne Sharkey. “He is not happy about seeing these incremental increases.
“He does understand that these are difficult economic times and that universities need additional funds,” she continued. “The state is tightening its belt, families are tightening their belts, and the universities should also be tightening their belts.”
The agreement specifies that universities would keep tuition increases under 10 percent compared with the previous term, not the previous fall, said Jim McCollum, executive director of the Inter-University Council, a group of Ohio's university presidents.
“I think the presidents are honoring the terms of the agreement,” he said.
Furthermore, the midyear increases only came when the state cut funding for higher education after last fall's tuition already was set, Mr. McCollum said.
“It's also important to remember that those tuition increases only partially offset the loss of state revenue. It was nowhere near a dollar-for-dollar match,” he said.
The genesis of the deal was a proposed tuition hike of nearly 35 percent for new students at Ohio State. The agreement, contingent on no further state cuts to higher education, pushed that figure back to 19 percent and allowed greater increases for new students.
Tim Hagan, the Democratic candidate for governor, called Mr. Taft's agreement “a political deal” that was more sham than substance.
“Clearly, the governor was trying to get himself out of a political situation,” he said, adding that he doesn't blame colleges.
“I think the presidents of the universities, as with the boards of trustees, were left between a rock and a hard place. They had budgets to meet and clearly had to respond to that. When the governor cut ... higher education, they had no choice in the matter.”
Ohio's public colleges and universities had to absorb a 6 percent reduction in state funding in the fall, and educators fear more cuts are possible as lawmakers struggle with the budget crisis.
In Michigan, Gov. John Engler cut a deal that would protect state universities from budget cuts provided that they keep tuition increases at 8.5 percent or $425, whichever is greater.
The state has kept its end of the bargain, and so far no Michigan universities have approved midyear increases, said Kelly Chesney, a spokeswoman for the state's budget office.
UT enacted a summer price increase, in part, to keep pace with its peer institutions in the state. Keeping its relative position with regard to price as well as resources is important to maintaining relative quality, said William Decatur, vice president of finance and administration.
“I would note that we were one of the last to do something like that,” he said. “Following the cuts in the fall, the decision was made at UT to hold the line. While we did that, a number of our sister institutions increased fees in the winter and spring.”
UT officials originally believed that the midyear increases would count toward the 10 percent specified in the agreement. When it became clear that they would not, UT decided it could hold the line no longer, he said.
Miami University, which is less reliant on state funding because it has more students who pay out-of-state tuition, chose to ignore this peer pressure for the time being.
Time will tell if that was the right decision, said Richard Norman, Miami's vice president for finance and business services.
“I may regret later not doing the same here,” he said. “We're unable to do anything new next year. We're simply staying still and not increasing salaries the way some of the other institutions are.”