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UConn considers boosting tuition 6 percent

December 18, 2011 5:23:06 PM PST
When students visit Susan Herbst during her open office hours, the University of Connecticut's new president is no longer surprised to hear them bemoan their inability to get coveted spots in necessary classes.

A few have even cried, frustrated that they've had to stay an extra semester or commute to another campus to finish their degrees while their competitors are already out of school and on the job hunt.

The concerns have become such a constant refrain that Herbst and her top administrators are taking a calculated gamble: They're proposing a tuition increase of 6 percent next year, but with the promise to make classes more accessible by using the money to hire more professors.

Trustees will consider the tuition increase proposal at a special meeting Monday on the Storrs campus.

Herbst, who started at UConn in June, is also asking trustees to consider her four-year plan that would eventually reduce the 18-to-1 ratio of students to professors to 15-to-1. UConn was at that lower ratio until about 10 years ago, when enrollment started climbing but hiring didn't keep pace.

Students would pay 6 percent more in tuition and fees starting in September under the proposal, but about 70 new faculty members would be hired right away.

Between 65 and 90 professors would also be hired in each of the next three years, assuming subsequent tuition increases between 6.25 and 6.75 percent also are adopted and other financial factors are stable.

UConn's tuition has gone up around 5 percent annually for the last five years except this year, when it was held to 2.5 percent.

Trustees said it was a nod to the tough economy, but warned it was likely to be an aberration rather than the start of a downward trend unless the economy and state aid rebounded.

UConn's annual tuition, room and board is $21,486 for Connecticut residents, and would increase to $22,430 next year if a 6 percent increase is approved in the tuition and fees portion.

Richard Gray, UConn's chief financial officer, presented the administration's proposal in forums last week for students, employees, alumni and parents. It quickly started stirring conversation among UConn students who are trying to balance cost concerns against their need to get into crowded classes.

"Obviously if we could get an increase in faculty without paying more that would be ideal, but students know it's not really possible," said Sam Tracy, a junior from South Windsor and president of UConn's Undergraduate Student Government.

"Given the option of an increase of 5 or 6 percent in order to get more faculty and be able to make classes more available, a large majority of students I've heard from are very open to that increase - on the condition, of course, that the money really does go toward hiring faculty and it's specifically dedicated toward that," Tracy said.

Students also would want assurances that financial aid will still be there for those who need it, including increases to offset at least some of the tuition hike, he said.

About 15,000 of UConn's 22,500 students are receiving financial aid this year, but alumni are carrying an average of about $23,200 in student loan debt when they graduate - about $1,800 less than the average nationwide, but enough to give them pause about new tuition increases.

But getting into classes on time can save students from needing to spend an extra semester - and paying for more housing costs and fees - or from commuting to the branch campuses.

Herbst told The Associated Press recently that she's sensitive to the students' cost concerns.

"Nobody wants to pay more for anything, but I find students and parents are very concerned about the quality of the college experience and they want to know that what they pay really goes toward that," Herbst said. "Our responsibility, when we do consider any kind of tuition increase, is to ensure those funds do go into improving the students' experience."

In the long run, she said, boosting the size and talent of the faculty pool also translates to more individual attention to students, more time for professors to conduct research and more chances at research grants for the university.

State aid to UConn has been dropping, but it's been collecting more in research grants.

It brought in about $93 million in those external grants in 2006-07, and the number this year is about $136 million - but Gray, the UConn financial officer, warned the trend cannot be maintained without what he called "a sustained and long-term investment in faculty."

Lyle Scruggs, a UConn political science professor and president of their chapter of the American Association of University Professors union, said it's been increasingly difficult over the years for faculty members to juggle their work as enrollment has outpaced hiring.

UConn figures show enrollment has gone up 53 percent since 1995, but the faculty numbers increased by 16 percent during the same time frame.

"I think this is an important and long-existing need at the university," Scruggs said, adding it's increasingly difficult to build relationships with students to help with their individual needs and questions, provide recommendations and other services.

Launching an aggressive hiring program could also help UConn lure some of the most proven and promising candidates, Herbst said.

"It's a great time to steal really tremendously talented faculty from other institutions and try to forge ahead boldly," she said. "Not only do you get more great teachers for your students, but you're also bringing in the kind of faculty who bring in research grants, and that has a multiplier effect on the state's economy."

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