University of Alaska president proposes 5 percent tuition increase

University of Alaska President Jim Johnsen said he will propose a 5 percent tuition increase rather than 10 percent for the 2017-18 academic year after students complained that the larger hike he first suggested would threaten affordability.

"If we can get a reasonable budget from the Legislature, then I think we can move forward with a reasonable tuition increase for our students," Johnsen said in an interview Tuesday.

Johnsen said he will propose the 5 percent tuition increase at next week's Board of Regents meeting. He said he had not yet finalized the entire budget proposal, but it would likely hinge on receiving $325 million to $350 million from the state Legislature — an optimistic request in the current financial climate and one that Johnsen said the university would be fortunate to receive.

This year, the University of Alaska received $325 million from the state and is grappling with a $50 million budget shortfall. Gov. Bill Walker's office told the university to brace for a $16 million to $32 million cut next academic year. Johnsen said he will prepare for a funding reduction, but he will also clearly articulate the investment the University of Alaska needs from the state.

In October, Johnsen presented the regents with three long-term budget scenarios for next year, which included decreases in state funding. Johnsen said gradual decreases in state funding would give the university a chance to increase enrollment and increase tuition in small increments.

"If our cuts are more severe than that it really constrains our ability to recruit and retain more students and that's the heart and soul of this framework. It's all about enrollment," Johnsen said. "And that's so we can grow our own, so we can meet our state's workforce needs. If we're constrained financially it's going to make our ability to do that more difficult."

The proposed 5 percent tuition hike follows years of tuition increases at UA, where rates vary by course level, residency status and between some campuses. Tuition rose by 5 percent this academic year, plus additional increases for business and engineering students. The year before that, tuition increased by 5 percent as well.

In September, Johnsen had presented a preliminary budget outline to the Board of Regents that included the "assumption" of a 10 percent increase for the 2017-18 school year. But in a memorandum on Friday to regents and student government groups, Johnsen said he would propose a 5 percent across-the-board tuition increase, which would still keep UA's tuition below the national average in-state tuition and fees at public universities that award master's and doctoral degrees, he wrote.

According to the College Board, full-time undergraduate tuition ranged from $8,340 at public master's universities to $10,510 at doctoral universities in 2016-17. UA reported it's full-time undergraduate tuition rate at $6,360.

In the memorandum, he wrote that Prince William Sound College and Kodiak College should move to the same lower division tuition rates as all other UA campuses within two academic years. Currently, tuition is lower at those campuses. He also wrote that extra charges paid by non-residents should be the same for both graduate and undergraduate students.

[Read Johnsen's memorandum on tuition]

Johnsen said Tuesday that UA would continue to reduce administrative costs.

Samuel Erickson, University of Alaska Anchorage student body president, said students generally understood the University of Alaska's financial situation and the inevitability of a tuition increase. But what is concerning, he said, is that students have no way to plan how much their total schooling will cost, since they don't know by how much tuition rates will rise each year.

Erickson said he had heard from students who had to pick up another job or postpone graduation until they could save more money to pay for school. He said that ideally the university would secure more funding from the state. If that's not feasible, he said, he would like to see the university cut administrative costs and if it must increase tuition, then do so in small, scheduled increases.

"So people can prepare for that," he said. "Right now it's kind of in limbo. … It's that uncertainty that makes it seem like the university is a lot more chaotic than it has to be."

David Russell-Jensen, University of Alaska Southeast student body president, said a lot of students are opposed to another tuition increase next academic year, but 5 percent is better than 10 percent.

"Another increase is going to be really hard for a lot of students," he said. "This one increase already was difficult for many."