The University of Louisville’s Grawemeyer Hall

Following through on a promise made by the University of Louisville board of trustees last year, the new board is expected to pass a budget next month for the 2017-2018 academic year that freezes students’ tuition rate — the first time UofL has done so since 2001, when in-state tuition was a third of what it is today.

In a presentation on next year’s proposed budget during Thursday’s board meeting, trustees chairman J. David Grissom interjected to suggest UofL go a step further by implementing tuition freezes for several additional years in the future. Interim President Greg Postel said he would like to see such a freeze happen, but any proposal would need to be studied to see if it is sustainable for the university — at a time when state appropriations for higher education continue to decline and UofL’s endowment value has taken a hit amid UofL Foundation turmoil.

After UofL’s interim CFO Susan Howarth noted to trustees that next year’s budget would keep the commitment to students to freeze tuition, Grissom made a point to note that “at Purdue, (President) Mitch Daniels has held tuition flat for five to six years. How much longer do you think we can keep our tuition flat?”

Howarth said that was a question worth looking into, though noting that this would put more financial pressure on the university to maintain a balanced budget, as the operating budget they now are proposing fills a $41 million shortfall from the current year.

“I don’t presume to speak for this board, but I think the board would be inclined to keep the tuition flat for at least another two to three years,” said Grissom.

UofL Board of Trustees chair J. David Grissom and interim UofL president Greg Postel | Photo by Joe Sonka

Postel replied by noting the proposed budget shows it is possible to keep tuition flat, and doing so in the future would create potential positives and negatives that should be examined.

“Well, we did it this year under very difficult circumstances, which means it can be done,” said Postel. “I think it’s something we need to think seriously about. It makes the school attractive to students, it makes us different from other state universities in Kentucky, and we can differentiate ourselves that way. It will require hard work and searching for alternative revenue, which we’re happy to do. So if the board wishes, that’s certainly something we can look at.”

Grissom then asked for the opinion of other trustees, with faculty representative Enid Trucios-Haynes adding that “I’d like to have a chance to study what the implications of that would be, to have a broader presentation about that.”

The current budget shortfall — mostly created by a $12 million decrease in tuition revenue and a much larger decrease in funding by the foundation — is being made up for in the current budget by increasing efficiencies, holding off on renovations and deferred maintenance, a salary freeze for faculty and staff, and a hiring “frost” — in which no more than 25 percent of vacancies will be filled.

Grissom replied to Trucios-Haynes by saying “Well, if it can be done at Purdue, it can be done other places.”

Trustee Nitin Sahney said he agreed with Grissom in principle, saying “I think it will allow us to become more efficient.” Grissom went further, adding that “it will force us to be more efficient.”

Trustee John Schnatter added that if tuition, ticket prices and parking was kept flat for students, the university could fix its problem of trying to increase enrollment.

Student representative Aaron Vance — a graduating senior — said the proposal to freeze tuition for multiple years sounded great, adding that his recent decision to attend Indiana’s law school is because they promised students the same tuition rate for every year of their study.

Noting a slide from Postel’s earlier presentation — showing that UofL is now much more heavily dependent on student tuition and fees than state appropriations — Grissom added that the university can still find more ways to be efficient with its $1.2 billion operating budget, and “we shouldn’t put this on the shoulders of the students until we’re absolutely as efficient as we can become.”

Slide from President Greg Postel’s presentation to the board of trustees. | Image courtesy of UofL

After the meeting Postel said the university has not yet discussed or modeled such a tuition freeze for multiple years, “but I know the students would love it and it would make me happy to be able to create an environment that’s as affordable as possible for students.” However, he added, “I think we’re going to have to do a lot of studying to understand if that is a sustainable model for the university.”

“If it is (sustainable) and there’s a way to do it, you can bet we’ll try,” said Postel. “We have never wanted to pay for the university on the backs of the students. On the other hand, this is an expensive place to run. We’ve got a lot of people who work here, almost 2,500 faculty, almost 10,000 staff, lots of buildings that all have to be heated and air conditioned. There’s a lot of expense running an operation like a university. So we have to be sustainable, and therefore it’s something worth studying.”

Click here to view the Kentucky Center for Economic Policy’s interactive graph showing the rapidly increasing tuition rates from public universities over the last 15 years, at a time when higher education spending by the state has significantly decreased. Below is a snapshot of the graph:

Joe Sonka
Joe Sonka is a staff writer at Insider Louisville focusing on government, politics, education and public safety. He is a former news editor and staff writer at LEO Weekly and has also freelanced for The Nation and ThinkProgress. He has won first place awards from the Louisville Metro chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists in the categories of Health Reporting, Enterprise Reporting, Government/Politics, Minority/Women’s Affairs Reporting, Continuing Coverage and Best Blog. Email him at [email protected]