New York state resident Nicole Johnson chose to attend the University of Kentucky because on a trip to visit relatives in Lexington she fell in love with the school.
But she will be spending her junior year in Germany, in part because it will actually be cheaper than attending UK, where officials have proposed the sixth tuition increase in a row for next year.
"They've been raising tuition every year," said Johnson, 20. "I had really hoped it would stay the same."
As an out-of-state student, Johnson's tuition is more than $16,000 a year. In Germany, on a non-UK program, the tuition, including books and meals, will be about $8,000. Even so, she estimates that when she graduates from UK with a major in anthropology and German, she'll have $80,000 in debt.
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"My parents have been a big help, but I don't know how some kids do it by themselves," Johnson said.
While numerous challenges will face the next UK president — decaying buildings, disgruntled faculty, supersized athletics — none will be more important than the plight of students trying to get a UK degree and the families finding the bill increasingly difficult to pay.
Julie Buland of Lexington, whose daughter Megan is a forestry major but still lives at home out of financial necessity, is critical of UK for what she sees as its support of sports rather than students in need. "The draw should be the academics," she said.
Freshman Kayla Parker, a Florida resident who runs track for UK and has a William C. Parker scholarship, nonetheless depends on her parents for expenses. "I don't think my parents are going to be too happy about it," she said of the proposed 6 percent increase in tuition.
Ben McIntyre, a freshman from Louisville, admits he's one of the lucky ones. He will be a dormitory resident adviser next year, which will help with his room-and-board expenses. But with the tuition increase, "I might have to take out an extra loan or work more hours to pay for it," he said.
McIntyre hopes that the increase can be targeted to his professors, who deserve a raise, he said.
Research universities such as UK and the University of Louisville have requested a tuition increase for in-state undergraduate students of 6 percent in 2011-12, the largest increase that can be authorized by the state's Council on Postsecondary Education. They are not alone. Eastern Kentucky University has also proposed a tuition increase of up to 6 percent; other schools are expected to follow suit. The council will meet on Thursday to approve those rates.
Over the last decade, UK's tuition has gone up 130 percent, which is in line with consistent decreases in state support. UK President Lee T. Todd Jr. has said consistently that tuition increases are the only way to ensure that UK continues its ever-steep climb to Top 20 status. This year's increase, for example, will provide faculty and staff the first pay raise they've had in three years.
UK officials also say that the school is still affordable when compared with other public research universities.
For example, this year, in-state students paid tuition and fees of $8,610, which is less expensive than most Top 20 schools, including Ohio State ($9,420), the University of Michigan ($11,837) and Penn State University ($15,250).
However, it is more expensive than at least two schools that are more highly regarded: The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, which costs $6,665 a year, and the University of Florida, which costs $4,044, according to a survey by UK. Both schools are in states that have considerably higher household incomes than Kentucky, according to 2008 census figures. Kentucky, in fact, ranks 47th in the country with a median household income of $41,538.
When Todd announced on Monday that he would establish a three percent pool for salary increases for faculty and staff, he said the tuition increase was the right thing to do, striking the right balance "between the continuing struggles Kentuckians face in a still fragile economy and the needs of the university."
"I understand the pain tuition increases cause our students and their families," said Todd, who is retiring in June. "But we do our students a grave and lasting disservice if we let the quality of their undergraduate experience erode. And it will erode if flat salaries result in faculty and staff departures and if flat budgets keep us from investing in this university's progress."
With each increase in tuition, UK Provost Kumble Subbaswamy said, the school increases its core scholarships proportionately.
"We closely monitor students who are experiencing financial stress and intervene to help," he said.
While the argument is often made that few UK students pay the full "sticker price" on their tuition bills, the idea that student financial aid stretches to cover the increase is misguided, said Lynda George, UK's director of student financial aid.
"The financial aid does not increase at the same rate that tuition increases," she said. "Financial aid at federal and state levels has remained fairly flat over time."
While 87 percent of UK students — 16,928 — receive some sort of financial aid, many of those are getting Kentucky Educational Excellence Scholarship money — funds the state gives to students for a combination of high school grades and standardized test scores.
Far fewer students qualify for federal financial aid, with 48 percent of students, or 9,460, receiving an average federal financial aid package of $13,520.
Meanwhile, student debt is soaring, as students supplement federal loans with those obtained in the private sector. While there has been only a 5 percent increase in the number of undergraduate borrowers, George said, the dollar volume has increased by 37 percent.
"There is a huge amount of unmet need," George said, and some federal programs that serve needy students are shutting down.
Student loans, unlike other debt, stick with a student for life. They are non-dischargeable under both Chapters 7 and 13 bankruptcy and they remain on a credit rating as firmly as not paying the Internal Revenue Service.
That's why the Family Foundation of Kentucky has proposed a ban on any tuition increases.
Spokesman Martin Cothran said his nonprofit group will start lobbying the General Assembly immediately.
"The purpose of higher education is to improve economic development by educating our children, but that doesn't work when they graduate with an average of $24,000 in debt," said Cothran.
Even as student costs have increased, UK officials said they're trying to provide a better education for the money, hiring more academic advisers and starting an ambitious new undergraduate program known as General Education.
In a memo sent to the campus on Tuesday, Todd mentioned a litany of improvements that will continue with the tuition increase, including more small classes and discussion sections, competitive scholarships, on-line courses and renovations to the Student Center.
But the number of students to teachers has increased from 16-to-1 in 2001 to 18-to-1 in 2010. That ratio is larger than some of UK's peers; the University of Michigan has a 15-to-1 ratio, according to U.S. News and World Report's ranking of college quality, with 46 percent of its classes serving fewer than 20 students.
UK's class sizes have remained relatively stable, but just 30 percent of its classes are for fewer than 20 students.
While class size is one of the measures used in the U.S. News ranking, some argue that it is biased against large universities, which tend to offer some courses with enrollments numbering in the hundreds.
On Friday morning, Paul Koester, a UK lecturer in mathematics, taught calculus to a class of about 100 students in Kastle Hall. (A high number of absences, he said, were attributable to students taking off for a Good Friday break.) While the lecture class is large, there are six subsections students can attend where they get one-on-one help.
In addition, study help is available through the university math department.
At Saint Louis University, where Koester taught before coming to UK, the largest math class had 35 students.
"You can't do the same kinds of things you do in a 30-student class," he said, just before introducing his UK students to a method for computing anti-derivatives.
But, Koester said, a student who takes advantage of opportunities for small-class attention can do well.
Subbaswamy defends the differences in class sizes, saying that given diverse learning styles and teaching methods, there has never been a general rule for an optimal class size for all subjects.
Honing basic skills, such as writing and foreign language learning, is best done in small groups, he said, while broad-based learning, such as introducing psychological concepts, can be done in large lectures, possibly supplemented by break-out activities.
Grumbling about tuition increases is nothing new.
In 1983, a U of L medical student named Britt Brockman led a protest against proposed tuition increases before a Kentucky higher education panel.
Fast forward 28 years: Dr. Brockman, now chairman of the University of Kentucky board of trustees, spoke before UK's faculty senate about the presidential search and the school's ambitions.
"We cannot expect these students and their families to shoulder the cost of our ambitions," Brockman said.
A recent UK Faculty Senate presentation criticized UK's reliance on tuition. It also said that enrollment pressures cause faculty members to cut back on using more active learning techniques in the classroom.
It encouraged UK to increase its investment in the Honors Program, add more competitive scholarships to attract Kentucky's academically talented students and focus on the "core" of the university — UK's undergraduate education.
Senior William Templeton of Lexington said he's gotten a good education overall as a chemical engineering major. He's paid for most of his education with scholarships from UK and the College of Engineering, and says he doesn't blame the school for raising prices.
"I blame it on the state of Kentucky," he said. "It's the politicians; they say they want education to be important, but they don't provide the money that's needed."
But no matter where the blame lies, the increases will take a toll, Templeton said.
"You have to work harder, get more jobs, or work more hours, take fewer classes and then delay your education," he said.