Eastern, Oakland universities defend tuition hikes

David Eggert
Associated Press

Lansing — Lawmakers hinted Thursday at revising how Michigan contains the cost of college tuition after two universities approved tuition and fee hikes that are more than double a target included in the state budget.

“The Legislature’s really going to take a look at universities gaming the system,” Sen. Tonya Schuitmaker, chairwoman of the Senate’s higher education budget subcommittee, told reporters after a joint hearing with the House.

The leaders of Eastern Michigan and Oakland universities went before the panels to defend their respective 7.8 percent and 8.5 percent tuition and fee increases instituted over the summer.

Exceeding the 3.2 percent tuition increase limit outlined in the budget, to which 13 other state universities adhered, means the schools will not qualify for increased state funding in the fiscal year that starts next week — $1 million for Eastern, $1.2 million for Oakland. But they will collect 10 times more than the lost boost in aid through their tuition and fee hikes.

Eastern interim President Kim Schatzel apologized for not notifying legislators in advance of the university’s tuition increase announcement. But she said with the higher-than-expected hike, the school’s tuition and fees of $10,417 for freshmen still rank 13th lowest among 15 state universities, its reserves of roughly $30 million are lower than 13 other schools and students continue to benefit from an initiative that froze tuition, mandatory fees and housing rates in the 2010-11 academic year.

Oakland President George Hynd cited Michigan’s long-term disinvestment in higher education, the school’s enrollment growth and below-average funding compared with other universities as factors in the tuition hike, which he called a “difficult decision.” Oakland’s education costs are in the bottom half of state universities, he said.

Some Republicans on the GOP-controlled committees pushed the presidents for better communication during the state budget process.

Schuitmaker, R-Lawton, said a more severe penalty could be coming in the 2016-17 budget for universities that “blow by” tuition restraint caps. Another legislator, she said, suggested to her that the state withhold performance-based funding from schools for two or three years instead of just one if they do not honor the limit. Wayne State University in 2013 raised tuition by 8.9 percent, well above that year’s cap.

Rep. Sam Singh, D-East Lansing, noted universities continue to grapple with a 15 percent funding cut five years ago. The $1.5 billion higher education budget is $43 million below what it was when Republican Gov. Rick Snyder took office in 2011.

But Sen. Curtis Hertel Jr., D-East Lansing, said state cuts over decades have shifted costs so students bear the brunt through higher tuition.

“Republicans and Democrats, it’s all of our faults,” he said. “I’m not excited about huge tuition increases, either. We need to look in the mirror and figure out how to solve this problem.”