Grawemeyer Hall on UofL campus | Photo by Joe Sonka

For the first time in 16 years, University of Louisville students in the next academic year will not face a tuition increase, as its board of trustees is expected to pass a budget in June that keeps a promise made last year to finally freeze its tuition rate, which has more than tripled since 2001.

A roughly three-hour drive north along I-65 from UofL’s campus, students at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Ind., will also pay a flat tuition rate next semester, and have even been promised by its president and trustees that tuition will be frozen for the next academic year, as well. But what really separates Purdue from UofL is that such announcements have now become the norm, as students’ tuition has been frozen since the 2012-2013 academic year — soon to amount to a six-year freeze, if not more.

The proposed budget that UofL trustees are to approve next month did not avoid pain in making the cuts necessary to make up for $12 million less in tuition revenue — and an even greater reduction in endowment spending from the troubled UofL Foundation — and fill a $41 million budget shortfall. In the next academic year, UofL is set to implement deferred maintenance, a salary freeze for all faculty and staff, and a hiring “frost” — in which no more than 25 percent of vacant positions will be filled.

While such short-term efficiency measures to fill a budget shortfall aren’t ideal among employees, J. David Grissom, chairman of the UofL board of trustees, said at its board meeting last week that he would like to follow Purdue’s model by keeping tuition flat “for at least another two to three years,” as it would force the university to become even more efficient.

“If it can be done at Purdue, it can be done other places,” Grissom said. “I just think that we have a $1.2 billion budget, and we know we’re not the most efficient place yet. And we shouldn’t put this on the shoulders of the students until we’re absolutely as efficient as we can become.”

UofL’s interim President Greg Postel expressed interest in following Purdue’s model, as it would be attractive to students and serve the university’s goal of dramatically increasing enrollment. However, he also added that they would have to “do a lot of studying to understand if that is a sustainable model,” as UofL has almost 2,500 faculty and 10,000 staff, and “this is an expensive place to run.”

So, how exactly did Purdue manage to freeze student tuition and fees for six years, and is it feasible for a school like UofL to follow the same model? IL spoke to two faculty leaders at Purdue who differed on what kind of impact this had on the university as a whole, as well as one at UofL who believes the university’s current financial situation is not comparable to that of Purdue, which makes it nearly impossible to follow the same model without hurting the school.

‘I’m told Purdue is really hot’

Last week, Purdue’s board of trustees endorsed a proposed tuition freeze for all students over the next two academic years — which would amount to six consecutive years under the administration of President Mitch Daniels. While Purdue tuition had doubled from 2001 to Daniels’ arrival, the annual rate had been locked in at $10,002 since 2012 — at a time when the average tuition and fees at public four-year colleges increased by 9 percent.

To put that in perspective, over the same time period, the in-state undergraduate tuition at UofL rose to $11,000 from nearly $9,000.

“Through thoughtful spending, we are investing in student affordability, and through thoughtful budgeting, we are investing in our people and teaching and research excellence,” stated Daniels in a press release. “These are messages that resonate with families and students, as evidenced by our recent projections for our incoming class. By all accounts, I’m told Purdue is really hot in Indiana right now.”

Daniels and Purdue officials have received loads of praise from grateful students and the media for such moves, citing recent figures to show that the lengthy tuition freeze has borne fruit for both the university and students, all while faculty raises continue. A recent press release stated that Purdue student borrowing had fallen 30 percent since 2012, with a student loan default rate of 1 percent three years after graduation, far below the national average. Additionally, Purdue says its in-state applications were up 7 percent this year, and its incoming class is expected to be the largest in recent years, with the most in-state freshmen since 2008.

Purdue has estimated that its tuition freezes have sacrificed roughly $70 million in revenue over the past four years, but that has been made up by a dogged pursuit to find efficiencies and spending cuts, along with efforts to increase enrollment, as more students mean more revenue.

A review of Department of Education figures on student debt and Purdue’s enrollment records shows that its students are indeed less reliant on federal loans and have more success at making those payments after graduation. While enrollment has increased significantly over the past two years, this is overwhelmingly due to an increase in out-of-state students, whose annual tuition rate is almost $29,000.

Of the nearly 6,000 Purdue students who began paying back their student loan debt in the 2013 fiscal year, only 2.7 percent have defaulted — which is about half the default rate from the student cohort two years earlier, and far below the average default rate in Indiana (14.2 percent) and four-year public colleges nationally (7.3 percent). Purdue spokesman Brian Zink told IL that the default rate of graduates in this cohort was much lower, at just 1 percent. For comparison’s sake, UofL’s student loan default rate in the 2013 cohort was 7.2 percent, a slight decrease from the previous year and well below the state average of 15.5, which ranks the second highest of states in the country.

Purdue has certainly increased revenue by increasing enrollment in recent years, but its enrollment figures show that non-resident students paying a much higher tuition are driving this trend, as in-state enrollment has steadily decreased.

After total enrollment decreased slightly at Purdue from the fall of 2012 to the fall of 2014, it shot up by over 600 in the following year and then by over 1,000 last fall, reaching 40,451. However, Indiana resident undergraduate enrollment actually decreased by nearly 1,400 students from 2012 to 2016, while non-resident undergraduate enrollment increased by 1,285, now coming within 2,000 of surpassing resident students.

This dynamic is even more pronounced when including graduate students, as resident students slightly outnumbered non-resident students in the fall of 2012, but in 2016 they totaled 3,635 less. Such a trend is not new, as just a decade earlier the ratio of resident to non-resident students at Purdue was 59 percent to 41 percent, but last fall that flipped to 45.5 percent and 54.5 percent.

Again for comparison’s sake, UofL’s enrollment only slightly increased by 347 students from 2012 to 2016, with Kentucky residents making up roughly 74 percent of these students. In-state students decreased by 274 in that time period and non-residents increased by 621, amounting to a much slighter decrease in the ratio of Kentucky students.

Though Purdue has trended heavily toward enrolling more out-of-state students, Zink tells IL that the incoming freshmen class will be heavy on Hoosiers, as it is not only their largest in many years, it includes the most students from Indiana in an incoming class since 2006.

Faculty at Purdue, UofL differ on impact of multiyear tuition freezes

Dr. J. Paul Robinson, a biomedical engineering professor at Purdue who leads the school’s chapter of the American Association of University Professors, tells IL that overall, he is “pretty happy” with the long-term tuition freeze, saying it “really had a huge impact on students. And at the end of the day, I think that’s why we’re here, to have an impact on students.”

“Purdue had 35 years of straight tuition increases,” Robinson said. “This is unsustainable. It’s a bad model. I really supported President Daniels’ effort to rein in the cost of education, because it’s outrageous. It’s just ridiculous.”

Robinson says he has not seen any major impact on faculty, as they have had “two or three reasonably good salary increases over that time,” though adding that “there are some issues.” Noting that other areas of the university have probably been impacted — as renovation and maintenance has been deferred, and class size is expected to increase — he says it is hard to measure just how significant these are.

Dr. David Sanders, a biology professor who leads Purdue’s faculty senate, has a much different take on the impact of such a long-term tuition freeze, repeating to IL what he has told the university’s board of trustees many times: that it is impacting the quality of education at the school and is no longer sustainable.

Sanders says Purdue not only balanced its budget by increasing non-resident enrollment, but also with academic department consolidations and significant cuts in the number of staff and teaching assistantships, which “saves money, but it interferes with our ability to get our jobs done.”

“When you have those sorts of cutbacks, it makes it more difficult to accomplish some of the more ambitious things… one falls back on doing the less ambitious projects,” Sanders said. “It makes the teaching enterprise and research enterprise more difficult.”

While Sanders says he is sympathetic to the need to make college more affordable, he says it would make sense to target those students from low-income families who have the hardest time paying tuition. The heavy reliance on non-resident enrollment paying a much higher tuition makes him believe that much of this policy over the last four years has been of a political nature, “an effort to affect appearances, in many ways.”

Along with anticipating a significant increase in class sizes, Sanders cited a comment from Purdue treasurer and CFO Bill Sullivan at the faculty senate meeting in January, saying that he told faculty a tuition freeze is not sustainable for future years.

“I think there are a whole series of things that are impinging on the quality of education,” Sanders said. “I anticipate that at some point we will have leadership that sees the quality of the education and research endeavor to be more important than merely its price.”

While Robinson disagrees on the scope of the impact and supports Daniels’ tuition freeze, he adds that the president’s contract is up in 2020, and if Daniels leaves, his successor will probably be forced to once again raise tuition — as Purdue’s uniquely strong financial position in 2012 may not be able to hold up.

“We were in a good financial position, we really were,” Robinson said. “I think it wouldn’t have survived four years if we weren’t, and now it’s going to go six years. I suspect when Daniels leaves the poor bugger who comes in will have to do a tuition increase… what choice will they have?”

Purdue to UofL, apples to oranges?

Dr. Susan Jarosi, a professor in the UofL Women’s and Gender Studies program and president of UofL’s AAUP chapter, says she attended the trustees’ meeting at which Grissom called for Purdue’s model but was troubled by the comparison.

“The reality of trying to do that at UofL is what I would consider almost impossible,” Jarosi said. “Purdue and UofL are such different institutions, it’s like comparing apples to oranges… It’s really troubling to me, frankly, that Grissom would promote that idea in public at a board of trustees meeting. It seems sort of irresponsible, it seems that he’s unaware of the differences between the two institutions.”

While noting that it would be great if UofL was in a position to freeze tuition for multiple years, Jarosi says that Purdue’s undergraduate enrollment is nearly double that of UofL, while Purdue’s $2.4 billion endowment is nearly three times larger. She adds that Purdue’s national rankings are already significantly higher than that of UofL, and Kentucky is likely to continue to significantly cut appropriations to higher education in the coming years.

While UofL is currently developing a strategy to significantly increase enrollment — by as much as 8,000 students, to 30,000, according to interim Provost Dale Billingsley — Jarosi notes that studies show the number of high school graduates in Kentucky is expected to decline in the coming years, as state colleges compete for new students in the new performance-based funding model.

Jarosi says faculty was particularly irked by the fact that while the proposed budget was discussed at the last trustees meeting, no one brought up that the budget shortfall was partially made up by salary freezes for all employees and the hiring frost. She says these were only described generally as “efficiencies,” though these cuts are “directly impacting every single employee here.” Jarosi says she is also frustrated by the “seesaw” relationship that students and faculty have been on through budget discussion over the past deadline — as when tuition is lowered from the maximum increase set by the Kentucky Council on Postsecondary Education, faculty salaries are frozen, and when tuition is raised by the maximum amount, faculty gets raises.

“It’s frustrating for faculty because we get pitted against students by virtue of this model that we’ve been fed forever,” Jarosi said. “And it’s all because of declining state appropriations… No faculty wants that, but that’s how it’s been set up.”

Enid Trucios-Haynes, a professor at UofL’s Brandeis School of Law and the faculty representative on the board of trustees, spoke up after Grissom’s suggestion in last week’s meeting by saying that she would “like to have a chance to study what the implications of that would be, to have a broader presentation about that.” She did not reply to an email and voicemail from IL seeking additional comment.

Grissom appeared to have backing from other trustees in that meeting, as Nitin Sahney noted that more tuition freezes would “allow us to become more efficient,” to which Grissom replied: “It will force us to become more efficient.” Papa John’s founder and CEO John Schnatter noted that keeping tuition and student fees flat would help UofL meets its objective of increasing enrollment.

Aaron Vance, the student representative on the board who is graduating this spring, added that students would welcome such relief from increasing tuition rates, noting that one of the factors in his choosing Indiana Law School was that school’s pledge to keep his tuition flat throughout every year he attends the school.