“Guaranteed Tuition” at Ohio University: While The Students Were Away…

On June 21st, the Ohio University Board of Trustees will vote on a resolution to approve the implementation of the “guaranteed tuition model” for future incoming classes starting in Fall 2015, if not earlier. Regardless of whether or not you think guaranteed tuition is a good idea, a bad idea, or even if you do not have a strong opinion on it, this should raise serious concerns for how Ohio University administration views its students. By voting on the resolution this summer, the Board of Trustees and administration has shown that it does not want to engage in meaningful dialogue with those who oppose guaranteed tuition.

I and others have already articulated multiple times why the guaranteed tuition model is not in the benefit of students. I do not want to retread old ground too much, as I and others have already have written letters, argued in debate, participated in protests, attended panels with administrators, and given presentations on the fundamental flaws of a guaranteed tuition model. I stand by those arguments and will continue to passionately argue against a model that only undermines students in the long run.

Though to recap, a guaranteed tuition model would essentially “lock-in” a student’s tuition payment for four years. At first take, this seems like a great money saver for students, but sadly it just another attempt by Ohio University administrators to decrease the already small amount of power students have. Firstly, guaranteed tuition is not a solution to student debt even though it’s being advertised as one. Indeed, Provost Benoit has publically stated that, “guaranteed tuition programs are not tuition savings plans but rather are intended to provide transparency and predictability.” The administration has tried to blur the line between predictability and affordability, but the two should not be confused. Instead of spending more time investigating ways to alleviate student debt, they have wasted precious resources and time on guaranteed tuition. Even so, the principal problem with guaranteed tuition is that it strips students of the little autonomy they still had when it comes to tuition increases. With the program, there will be fewer students on campus who would have any self-interest to fight exorbitant tuition increases and the Board of Trustees would feel more comfortable raising tuition every year without the fear of significant student backlash.

Most recently, the numbers of the model – found in the Board of Trustees agenda for June –  gives the administration more leeway to raise tuition. As speculated, the guaranteed tuition model is a “guaranteed tuition hike.” The first year of the program would require a large one-time tuition increase, as high as 5.88 percent. While it’s a little more complicated than this, it is basically a tuition hike for the next four years. Following that, the legislation (H.B.No. 59, Sec. 3345.48) allows for Ohio University to increase tuition by the rate of inflation plus the state tuition cap. Compounded over a long period of time, this has the potential to make a four year cost of attendance higher than it would be under Ohio University’s current tuition model. Perhaps most disturbingly is a clause in the legislation that allows the university to ask for a tuition increase above that cap if at any time their tuition is not as high as other universities in Ohio. So while there is a safeguard against tuition being too low, no equivalent protection exists if tuition becomes too high.

A guaranteed tuition model would allow Ohio University to raise tuition above the state tuition cap.
A guaranteed tuition model would allow Ohio University to raise tuition above the state tuition cap. Also, it’s hard to believe they wouldn’t, given this historical trend of raising it at or near the cap. (Source: Ohio University testimony to the statehouse on guaranteed tuition)

Unfortunately, the one thing I have been embarrassingly wrong on is that I thought that the Board of Trustees could not vote on a resolution for guaranteed tuition until at least September, because the model requires approval by the state first and the September Board of Trustees meeting would be the earliest meeting after approval. However, in a coup, the Board will be voting on a resolution to adopt the tuition guarantee program this June, on the condition that it is approved by the state legislature.

This is in light of comments by Provost Benoit claiming that “trustees will not vote on a guaranteed tuition this year.” President McDavis has called for pursuing shared governance through “respect and civility,” but he and his administration have failed to do that by going back on their word to wait to vote on guaranteed tuition. Benoit will certainly argue that the new Board of Trustees year begins in June, but it’s still intellectually dishonest to not specify so if that was the case.

Also troubling is that the students who should be standing for students – Student Senate – have not only been complacent up until this point, but they are now openly accepting guaranteed tuition as inevitable. Student Senate failed to ask the tough questions during the 2012-13 academic year about guaranteed tuition and never took a stand on the issue, thereby allowing the administration to conclude that everything was copacetic amongst students. Despite presentations and pleas by myself and other students asking Student Senate to denounce guaranteed tuition, we were told to wait for more information. Now, according to the Board of Trustees agenda for the June 2013 meeting, Student Senate Treasurer Austin LaForest will be a member of the “implementation team” for guaranteed tuition. Note that this is not the “Let’s Decide If This Is A Good Idea Or Not Committee,” but rather the, “This Is A Bad Idea But We Need A Student To Rubber Stamp It Committee”. I have no doubt Austin will do his best to represent students on this committee, but that’s not the point. By passing the resolution over the summer and appointing a student to this committee, the administration has moved the goalposts from us deciding whether or not to adopt a guaranteed tuition model, to us deciding how to best implement one.

I know that the Board of Trustees and the university administration all want what they think is best for Ohio University, are intelligent individuals, and possess more detailed knowledge of the long-term vision for the university than students. That is not in contention. The problem is the respect that most of them carry for student opinion, or lack of. For example, when students were given a forum to express concerns at a program entitled “Tuition Talks” in April, this is how student Ellie Hamrick described the conduct of Benoit and Vice President for Finance Stephen Golding:

“I think that they dodged a lot of questions and were more focused on being rhetorically suave and talking around it than they were to having an honest and open engagement with students.”

To illustrate, a concerned raised at “Tuition Talks” was that the guaranteed tuition model disproportionately effects students who are already at risk of dropping out – people of color, first generation students, and students from low socio-economic status – because it front loads the cost of tuition on to the first two years of college. Administrators even fully admitted that they had not researched or considered that possibility, but because it was a concern raised by students it still has not been given proper consideration. If the administration was actually serious about seeking student opinion, they would have taken this opportunity to accept criticism of their plan and invited concerned students to committees and meetings prior to bringing a resolution to the Board of Trustees.

It should also be evident that am I not the only student at Ohio University who shares these views. In the spring, I ran on a Student Senate ticket comprised of myself and two other people, running opposed to guaranteed tuition and the idea that students are not taken seriously in Ohio University’s model of shared governance. While we did not win, we received about 37 percent of the vote  (over 700 people), which was impressive given our disadvantage of about 35 people and about $3000. Separate from that, students have been coming out to protest guaranteed tuition and tuition hikes in general, whether that be over 200 people on College Green or the individuals who were willing to get arrested at the Board of Trustees meeting. Despite these events, there have been no serious efforts at reconciliation by administrators to address any of these concerns.

What I am getting at, is that the current system of how the administration communicates – I use the word loosely – with the university community is unproductive.  I think Ohio University student Brian Vadakin puts it best in a letter to The Post: “What we need now is reason, and truly productive discussion between students, faculty and administrators — and not just through their respective senate bodies.” If President McDavis is serious about shared governance, he needs to welcome student opinion from all who want to be heard, rather than quickly dismissing those he disagrees with.

I myself am not quick to protest, as I would rather have parties sit down and negotiate a compromise, but if the president thinks he can circumvent students by holding this vote in the summer he is woefully wrong, and I can guarantee that he has only emboldened more students to take even more drastic action.

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