LINCOLN — Most current University of Nebraska and state college students weren't even born the last time either of the higher education systems went without a tuition increase.
Those students could enjoy a two-year tuition freeze under a plan that Gov. Dave Heineman and higher education leaders unveiled Monday.
Under the proposal, the governor will recommend state funding increases large enough to allow the university and state colleges to forgo tuition increases for the 2013-14 and 2014-15 school years.
Tuition rates for out-of-state students could continue to increase. So could room and board rates and other fees.
Whether the funding increase can win approval from the Nebraska Legislature remains to be seen.
The proposed increase for the two years would total $68.3 million.
“It's a very creative idea, but it has to be considered in the larger context of the budget,” said State Sen. Bill Avery of Lincoln, a former University of Nebraska-Lincoln professor and Education Committee member.
Sen. Tom Hansen of North Platte, who is seeking the Appropriations Committee chairmanship, said some lawmakers may be reluctant. He noted that the Legislature approved $85 million last year for building projects at both the University of Nebraska and state colleges, while holding the line on most other spending.
Sen. Charlie Janssen of Fremont said he likes the idea of keeping young people in the state but wants to make sure the proposal is “a fiscally sound policy.”
Heineman said the proposal fits with the goal of making higher education affordable and accessible for Nebraska students.
“In Nebraska, we understand that education is the great equalizer, and that's why education is a priority for me,” he said.
NU President James Milliken said the proposal would save the average university undergraduate $1,000 over two years.
The governor said his budget will call for boosting the University of Nebraska's state appropriations from the current level of $498 million up to $541 million in fiscal year 2015. That's an 8.6 percent increase over the two-year period.
The Nebraska State College System's funding would increase from the current $45.5 million to $49.6 million in fiscal year 2015, a 9.1 percent increase.
The tuition freeze would go into effect if the Nebraska Legislature agrees to the governor's funding recommendations.
Heineman declined to say how that spending would fit within the larger budget picture.
According to legislative fiscal staff, the state faces a gap of nearly $200 million between projected revenues and estimated expenses for the two-year budget period starting July 1.
The tuition freeze would apply to all Nebraska students attending the University of Nebraska campuses in Lincoln, Kearney, Omaha, including the NU Medical Center, as well as Chadron, Wayne and Peru State Colleges.
Several members of the NU Board of Regents were enthusiastic about the proposal.
New Regent Hal Daub, the former Omaha mayor, said the proposal “strikes at the very heart” of what he learned on the campaign trail. Nebraskans are increasingly concerned about the affordability of the state's higher education system, he said.
Regent Bob Whitehead of Papillion said the proposal offers reason to be “genuinely excited.”
“It's going to save students some dollars over the next two years, and in a small way it will help reduce the student debt load,” he said.
Tuition increases have been an annual part of life for at least two decades at the university and for more than 30 years at the state colleges. At the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and the medical center, 1987 was the last year that tuition was not increased.
Milliken said the tuition proposal acknowledges that the state and students share responsibility for funding higher education at public institutions.
The proportion of state tax support for higher education has been declining. In recent years, Nebraska lawmakers have held the university's funding flat to help close the state's budget gap.
Milliken said the university was willing to cooperate to help the state but could not continue for long without increased state support.
“State support is crucial to sustaining the priorities of a great University of Nebraska system — including affordable access to high-quality education,” he said.
State College Chancellor Stan Carpenter said the proposal will help keep higher education affordable for students and their families, and could encourage more students to consider higher education.
A tuition freeze would mean total annual savings of more than $1 million for state college students, he said. As a result, students may be able to work fewer hours while attending college and be able to graduate sooner.
The governor said the proposal still leaves room for potential tax cuts.
One tax idea he has floated would hit parents and students who benefit from the tuition freeze. The idea calls for sharply reducing income taxes and replacing at least some of the lost revenue with a fee on college dormitory rooms.
Heineman said community colleges were not included in the proposal because they “have a different funding mechanism” and separate boards, making the implementation more difficult.
Nebraska is not the only state looking at tuition freezes.
The Iowa Board of Regents has endorsed a tuition freeze for in-state undergraduate students for the next school year, if lawmakers will approve a 2.6 percent funding increase for the University of Northern Iowa, Iowa State University and the University of Iowa.
Public universities in Minnesota, Maryland, Rhode Island, Texas, Indiana and California also are discussing tuition freezes.
World-Herald staff writer Leslie Reed contributed to this report.
Contact the writer: 402-473-9583, firstname.lastname@example.org
|University of Nebraska tuition increases|
|For UNMC, UNL, UNO and UNK|
|*Does not include differential tuition increases.|
|Source: University of Nebraska|
|2012-13 Nebraska tuition rates, per credit hour,|
|for in-state residents:|
|University of Nebraska-Lincoln**||$216||$285|
|University of Nebraska at Omaha||$196.75||$245.25|
|University of Nebraska at Kearney||$174.50||$216.50|
|University of Nebraska Medical Center||$216||$285|
|*Peru State, Wayne State and Chadron State have identical tuition rates.|
|**Does not include differential tuition rates in the colleges of business, engineering and architecture.|
|Proposed tuition freeze would apply to Nebraska residents at the undergraduate, graduate and professional levels. Professional tuition rates vary by major.|
|Source: University of Nebraska and Nebraska State College System|