Universities request more funding to keep tuition affordable

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Leaders from several public universities told Indiana lawmakers Thursday they will need a bigger funding boost from the state to keep tuition increases for students in check.

Schools have been under pressure in recent years to keep costs low after tuition prices far exceeded inflation rates. Purdue University received national attention when it froze tuition in 2013. Indiana University chose to freeze tuition for students in good academic standing as sophomores, while others held increases at or below the rate of inflation for several years.

A budget proposal before the House would increase higher education funding by 3.5 percent over the next two years, about an additional $45 million, which is slightly more than the 1-percent increase proposed by Republican Gov. Mike Pence. It would also fully fund the 21st Century Scholars program, which started in 1990 and promises low-income middle school students a full state college scholarship if they stay out of criminal trouble and get acceptable grades.

But university leaders said the percentage of state funding for public university budgets has been declining for decades, and the House proposal's increase may not be enough to cover the cost of important programs, research and maintenance, and also offset the rate of inflation.

"Given the needs of our students and the trajectory we are on in terms of enrollment and performance we are going to be asking that you continue to revive (funding) upward," said Indiana State University President Daniel Bradley.

Purdue University's tuition freeze announced in March 2013 broke the West Lafayette school's 36-year string of tuition hikes, and kept in-state tuition at about $10,000 a year for some 10,000 students on the main campus.

Purdue's President Mitchell E. Daniels said the university's board of trustees has already approved a tuition freeze for next year.

"We're passionate about this," he said but could not say whether or not that will continue under the current House proposal.

Indiana University President Michael McRobbie said that school officials "are strongly committed to keeping tuition increases as low as possible" but need to maintain the quality of academic and research for students.

His requests included funding for a health and science research center in downtown Evansville that would increase medicine and health-related educational opportunities for students, and an additional $27 million for regional campus maintenance.

Purdue aims to use funding to help expand its engineering college and summer programs, and transform its College of Technology into the Purdue Polytechnic Institute, which will incorporate a competency-based learning program. This means "students will progress at the rate they improve," Daniels said.

ISU enrollment rate is record breaking having grown by 26 percent since the fall of 2008, and this is during a period of state-wide decline in the number of people seeking college degrees, Bradley said. Funding for existing programs and renovation of the school's Health and Human Services Building would provide more classrooms, laboratories and office space.

"We're not going to be able to continue to be the same university we are today" without adequate funding, he said. "What we're asking for is really stabilization."

The House proposal is currently under consideration in the Senate. Both the House and Senate must agree on one budget proposal by the time the legislative session ends in late April.

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