Monday, July 2, 2007

Budget ‘belt tightening,’ tuition jump follows dismal state returns - 2 July 2007



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The numbers are in, and tuition is up.

Following a less-than-expected allocation from the state government, tuition across the state has risen to offset mandatory cost increases and low enrollment.

At NSU, in-state undergraduates will pay $126.60 per credit hour this fall, an 8.9 percent increase over last year. In-state graduate students will pay $154.90 per credit hour.

The university’s increase is higher than the other state universities, which had an average of 8.6 percent, according to a report by the Oklahoma State Regents for Higher Education.

OU and OSU raised tuition by 9.7 and 9.9 percent, respectively.

The rise at NSU is because of cost increases in mandatory spending, like insurance and utilities. The Regents gave the university $1.1 million and costlier bills totaled $1.4 million, said acting President Kim Cherry, forcing the tuition increase.
She also said the “very high-cost programs” of music, speech pathology and nursing saw tuition increases to more than $146 per credit hour.

The regents, after asking the state legislature for $170 million more than last year’s appropriation, received only $79.6 million in new money. About one-third was divided between the state colleges and universities, and the rest are earmarked for financial aid programs and special projects initiated by the legislature.

The total higher education allocation was about $1.1 billion.

All of this has caused a financial situation in Tahlequah, where cautious administrators have trimmed budgets. New hires under the prevue of Cherry’s Office of Administration are being considered carefully, and every department must justify filling those blank posts.

The ax has fallen on academics, too. The Office of Academic Affairs budgeted last year for six new faculty and the phantom positions have now been repealed because of lower enrollment.

“It was a pretty painless way to give up new positions,” said Vice President Dr. Dalton Bigbee. “If you never had it, it doesn’t hurt so badly.”

He said no job advertisements had been circulated and no one had expected to get one of these six positions, but one of the unassigned budget lines was being held for a vacancy in the English department.

Bigbee said adjunct faculty will now assume those teaching duties.

He said the cut freed up $300,000.By phone last week, Cherry strayed away from the assumption that the budget is rife with cutbacks.

“It is belt tightening,” said Cherry.

The school is not completely strapped, she said. There are still funds set aside for departments’ special needs.

There is also a silver lining for entry-level employees and staff grades one through five, who will get a pay raise this year. Student workers are included, and in July will start with an hourly wage of $6.15. The current wage is $5.60.

At that point, the federal minimum wage will be $5.85.

“We find it more and more difficult to keep competitive,” said Cherry, who noted the university is “trying to stay ahead of the minimum wage.”

She also said a proposed salary stipend is in the works and will be reviewed in November. It is tied to enrollment numbers and if the outlook is good, the stipend will be distributed in January.

Among the operating budgets being parsed by low revenue and high costs are those for equipment, the Physical Plant, Computing and Telecommunications and Business Affairs. The belt tightening has also affected the university-wide implementation of nFocus, a data interface software designed to facilitate easier information sharing between departments. Upgrades of the Oracle software are being delayed, said Cherry.

This is not the first time the university has felt the money crunch.

Major restructuring of the university’s academic programs followed a dip in state appropriations in 2002.

That year, the state cut funds to higher education by more than $36 million, which after an 18-month review led to the consolidation of several departments into four distinct colleges.

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