LEWISTON — With a shortfall projected to grow to $22 million by 2022, the University of Idaho is looking to make deep cuts to long-term operating costs, but efforts to grow enrollment are at least as important to covering the deficit, UI President Scott Green said during an interview at the Lewiston Tribune office Wednesday.
Green said a significant share of the shortfall is the result of a drop in out-of-state tuition because of the institution’s increased participation in the Western Undergraduate Exchange program. WUE students are non-Idaho students who hail from a 16-state consortium organized by the Western Intercollegiate Commission for Higher Education. Rather than pay out-of-state rates, Green said these students pay about 150 percent of the in-state rate, which amounts to a significant discount. Before 2018, Green said UI only gave WUE discounts to students from a couple of nearby states.
In October, UI Vice President of Finance and Administration Brian Foisy told the Daily News that the school’s decision to honor reduced tuition rates for every WUE state came in 2018 and was not retroactive, meaning students already in the pipeline from most WICHE states still paid out-of-state tuition. Now that UI is “all-in,” new students in the program are paying the WUE rate, which is less than half of out-of-state tuition. The difference between those tuition totals accounts for about $8 million of the shortfall, Green said. He said as word gets around that UI is an affordable option for all WICHE states, he expects enrollment from those states to rise enough to offset those losses within three years.
While it may seem counterintuitive to growing revenues, Green said a statewide tuition freeze announced last month by Idaho’s public universities may help UI to continue to attract students.
“Even though we have the eighth-lowest in-state tuition rates in the country — those folks who are below us on that, or have cheaper in-state tuition, tend to be around us,” Green said.
This includes rates in Utah, Montana and Nevada, according to the College Board.
“To be competitive we really needed to take a look at our tuition rates and think about this strategically,” Green said. “We are losing kids to Montana, to Utah, and so when setting our rates, we need to be cognizant of that.”
He said this is the first time UI has declined a tuition hike in at least 40 years. While this amounts to refusing a $2 million to $3 million revenue boost, he said there’s no telling how many students will be able to attend UI specifically because of the lower cost. Green noted it’s still “very early,” but said most metrics that help to forecast enrollment numbers for the coming year are looking positive.
“It doesn’t take a big movement in enrollment to really provide a lot of money,” Green said.
Green said the freeze is consistent with UI’s responsibility to make education accessible, which is also why he hopes to build university infrastructure to reach more students online. Green said Idaho faces a few barriers to supplying robust online education opportunities — particularly a lack of statewide, high-speed internet — however, it behooves the UI to prepare to meet more students where they are.
“In my view, we’re going to look a lot more like some of the East Coast institutions where already a third of their revenues are from online classes,” Green said. “So we need to build the infrastructure, and that’s one of my priorities when I talk about student success and where we want to invest — online is one of those areas.”
With funding levels still below where they were before the Great Recession and little hope of increased funds from the state, Green called these tight budgetary conditions “the new normal.” A couple of decades ago, he said higher education comprised about 15 percent of appropriations from the state — now it’s closer to 7.5 percent — and it’s not just Idaho.
“I would like to say that the tides will turn and states across the country will see the value of public education (and) the great return that they’ve gotten, but I think it’s going to be a hard sell — it continues to be a hard sell,” Green said “For whatever reason, our elected officials don’t value higher education the way they used to.”
Scott Jackson can be reached at (208) 883-4636, or by email to firstname.lastname@example.org.