While we’re at it, let’s recognize the universities in Tuscaloosa and Auburn and the doggedly persistent lobbyists who represent their interests. They’re part of this unpleasant moment, as well.
Recall this spring’s daily fusillade of PACT news, all of it centered on efforts by the state Legislature to cover the plan’s sagging bank account. Competing versions of PACT-saving bills emerged in the state Senate and House. The bills’ main difference was caps on tuition increases for PACT enrollees: one bill had them, the other didn’t.
The compromise bill that the Legislature passed and Gov. Bob Riley signed gave $547.6 million to PACT, which would cover the existing contracts for the program’s 44,000 participants. It also capped increases for PACT enrollees at all public state universities except Auburn and those in the Alabama system. Excluding those schools from the caps was a mistake. Additionally, the bill based its fiscal estimates on UA and AU raising their tuition rates by 7.5 percent per year over the next two decades.
Well, turns out that was a mistake, too.
On Friday, the Alabama system’s trustee board voted to raise tuition by between 12.8 percent and 15.1 percent at its campuses in Tuscaloosa, Huntsville and Birmingham. Auburn’s trustees had previously voted to increase tuition by 13 percent for students taking 10 credit hours at the school’s main campus.
In other words, one of the scenarios PACT-savers worked desperately to avoid seems to be happening.
A preponderance of PACT students attend Auburn and Alabama’s three campuses. As tuition at those schools continues to rise at double-figure rates, not even the $546 million already promised to PACT will be enough to cover the program’s long-range commitments.
That means future PACT students will be forced to make up the difference — if they can — or legislators in coming years would have to consider another financial fix for the state-backed plan.
Administrators at UA and AU are right to decry the cuts in state appropriations during the Great Recession. A spokeswoman for the Alabama system told the Birmingham News that UA’s campuses had lost $170 million in state appropriations since 2008. Those cuts are undeniably deep.
Nevertheless, the state’s commitment to the 44,000 PACT families remains as strong today as it was before the recession began eating away at the plan’s earnings. The state’s moral obligation to those families hasn’t changed.
Likewise, the Legislature should not have succumbed to lobbyists for the state’s two largest universities. Recent history has shown that modest tuition increases can’t be expected at either UA or AU.
The PACT-related joy felt at the end of the legislative session has been lessened thanks to double-digit tuition increases we should have expected. If PACT’s supporters ever begin another save-the-plan campaign, such increases should be penciled in. They’re the new norm.