People Get Ready 

Idaho college students begin to organize

A small group of Idaho college students showed up at a recent marathon State Board of Education meeting to protest tuition and fee hikes. Though they had advertised their presence as a sit-in, the students--mostly from Boise State and two from Idaho State University--sat in the audience during the morning session and into the afternoon updating their Facebook profiles and awaiting a chance to address the board.

"Good members of the board," declared Boise State senior Jason Denizac, a founder of the newly formed Idaho Student Association. "We face a tough situation, but we can do better. Tuition hikes hurt students."

The board granted most of the requested hikes at the April 5 all-day meeting, ranging from a 5.1 percent increase at Lewis-Clark State College to a 9.5 percent hike at the University of Idaho. The board trimmed U of I's request by $122 a year per student and shaved a bit off of Idaho State's request.

Boise State in-state tuition and fees will rise 9 percent to $5,300 a year.

U of I President Duane Nellis called the ever-rising student fees a stopgap measure and said the university will try to find even more savings after losing some $1.2 million in requested fees.

"At the same time, the approach makes it more challenging when we can't gain the support from the Legislature and we can't gain the full support from the State Board," Nellis said after the meeting.

Idaho's five colleges and universities have each seen budget cuts in excess of 20 percent during the last two years. One of the charts reviewed at the tuition-setting meeting showed that while the cost to attend college in Idaho has risen 36 percent since 2003, per capita income in the state only rose 25 percent.

Boise State President Bob Kustra said officials would likely be back again next year asking for more tuition.

"I don't see any true leaders for higher education," Kustra said. "I just don't see this state's leadership looking at higher ed as a key driver to the economy."

Kustra pointed to Oregonians, who voted to raise taxes in order to fund higher education during a recession.

"If there's revenue enhancements like Oregon did, then you can in fact find the funding," he said.

But State Board of Education President Paul Agidius said the culprit is not the Legislature or the board, it's the economy.

"We are the advocates ... We try to explain to them the need for funding higher education," he said. "I think it would be great if they could."

While student government leaders at Boise State and U of I backed their administrations' tuition and fee proposals, and there was little outcry on campuses save a brief protest at Idaho State, the board did not turn a deaf ear to the concerns of students.

Board member Kenneth Edmunds of Twin Falls opposed all of the larger fee increases in the interest of affordability. And other board members tried to translate the fee increases into numbers of pizzas or cell phone bills, after Nellis introduced the metaphors.

"I'm voting that you kids take away a couple pizzas a month to feed the machine, to make sure that the future has the same advantage that you have," Boise trustee Milford Terrell said.

Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Luna, who is also a trustee, quipped that anyone thinking of going into the pizza business in Idaho's college towns ought to think twice.

But Luna also urged each of the college presidents to consider cutting faculty and staff pay and to be more aggressive about finding savings.

"I'm concerned that we continue to look at things other than salary because then we look at things that get into the classroom and provide that robust education," Luna said.

Kustra repeated his call for "revenue enhancements," encouraging an examination of the state's valuable tax exemptions, but acknowledged that significant reform is unlikely in a state that gives lobbyists their own room at the Statehouse.

But he also lauded the Legislature and the governor for providing more flexibility this year with four bills that the college presidents backed:

• A new Higher Education Stabilization Fund will provide some cushion in future recessions.

• The state gave colleges the ability to buy scientific equipment without going through state procurement procedures.

• Universities will have more flexibility in choosing contractors on construction projects.

• And the new, private dorms at Boise State will be exempt from taxation because they are on university-owned land.

Denizac, of the Idaho Student Association, told the board that his annual fees rose $710 during his college career.

"It's pricing young people out of education, the segment of society that can least afford it," he said.

Kustra said that the Idaho Student Association never approached him to discuss fees and that Denizac's argument that classes are overflowing and it takes too long to graduate actually reinforced his call for higher fees in the face of declining state support.

But Kustra said he'd be happy to meet with the students.

"I think it's a very good idea that students get organized," he said.

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