After a request by Georgia Senators in 2016, the Georgia Department of Audits and Accounts released an audit in December 2016 detailing what the cost drivers are for a public higher education in Georgia. The audit states that from 2006 to 2015, the cost to attend a Georgia public university jumped from $8,361 per year to an average of $14,791. However, according to the audit, state funding was on the decline while costs were rising.
“When the recession hit, tax revenues plummeted, so the state had less money to distribute to all its major areas of responsibility, such as health care, K-12 education, and higher education,” Ross Rubenstein, Georgia State Educational and Community Policy Professor, said. “When state appropriations fall, tuition and fees have to rise to make up the difference.”
“Historically, state appropriations were set to fund 75 percent of instruction costs and tuition rates were set at levels to fund the remaining 25 percent of the cost of instruction,” Director of Performance Audit Division Leslie McGuire said.
Those levels, according to McGuire, were created using funding formulas calculating the cost based “largely on enrollment levels”.
Reasons for a hike
“Since 2003 the portion of costs funded by state appropriations has declined. Following the 2008, recession only 55 percent of instruction costs [were] being funded by state appropriations by 2011,” McGuire said.
According to McGuire, many factors go into rising costs, including changes in the HOPE scholarship, rising costs in dorms and other school fees. However, she said that even those factors aren’t the biggest cost drivers.
“Tuition rate increases and the implementation of the Special Institutional Fee established (in 2009) to offset reductions in state appropriations- have had the largest impact because they affect all students,” said McGuire.
While all students are affected by cost increases, the group being most affected are freshmen. The audit states that the lowest average cost of housing and dining rates at the University System of Georgia’s (USG) institutions for 2016-17 was $8,302, and a lot of Georgia colleges require them from their first-year class.
“The bad news is that costs for students have risen since the recession,” said Rubenstein. “The good news is that students in Georgia still only pay a fraction of the full cost of a college education, particularly when you factor in financial aid programs such as HOPE Scholarships. A college education in Georgia is still a great investment.”
Optional fees on the rise
“For students residing on campus and purchasing meal plans, cost increases for these services are major cost drivers,” McGuire said. “Nineteen of 29 USG institutions mandate that freshmen live on campus and 18 institutions mandate these students purchase meal plans. Only four of these institutions extend on-campus housing to sophomore students.”
The audit showed that the average student is charged twice as much as they should be for meal plans. The audit found that in Armstrong State University, a meal costs a student $15.97, but the typical student only consumes about $8.30 worth of food, 50 percent of what they are paying for.
The audit also showed that from 2006 to 2015, the cost of housing and meal plans have increased at more than double the rate of inflation, making these two factors some of the largest drivers in cost increases.
The University System of Georgia claims that they are really tightening the fee approval process to determine that any additional fee that is added is absolutely necessary.
“There will be guidelines put in place for how we look at these fees – particularly dining – so that all institutions work within those guidelines rather than leaving it to each institution,” according to an official USG statement.
The USG argues this is a fundamental change because prior to the decision made at the Board of Regents (BOR) meeting on Jan. 11th, only mandatory fees had to go through the Board to be approved, which included only fees every student was required to pay. Now, optional fees, such as those for dining and housing, will be put under the University System’s guidelines, as well.
In the meeting, the BOR also touched on the recent Georgia State – Georgia Perimeter College consolidation. The board said the idea behind the consolidation was to reduce the number of institutions, and therefore reduce the number of administration positions, in order to take those savings and re-invest them to better serve students.
For some universities, that might mean offering more academic programs. For Georgia State, the board said that the savings from consolidating were able to bring in additional counselors to help guide and support students on their degrees and on what courses to take. The University System estimates that so far, with all the consolidations, they’ve been able to save more than $24 million.
Minutes from the BOR meeting:
A report was given on the Georgia State consolidation. According to the report, some of the changes made since the consolidation included the elimination of 107 administrative and non-academic positions, the reduction of cabinet officers from 20 to 11, as well as a redirection of $6.58 million into academic programs. The report also stated that they plan over the next three months to hire 30 academic advisers and 48 staff in admissions, financial aid, and in Student Success and key student-facing offices.