The average cost of attendance at a University System of Georgia school has skyrocketed 77 percent in the past 10 years — and state lawmakers are taking aim at the causes.
“We’re going to see legislation with more teeth in it,” said Sen. Chuck Hufstetler, R-Rome, who sits on that chamber’s Appropriations Committee.
In advance of the legislative session that starts Monday, the committee asked the Georgia Department of Audits and Accounts to take a deeper look into what’s driving the increase — to an average of $14,791 from $8,361 a year.
The findings, released Dec. 30, zero in on three main issues: a decrease in state funding per pupil, changes to the HOPE Scholarship program and a rise in mandatory fees.
Hufstetler said a grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation will allow a more comprehensive study of college affordability factors this year, with an eye toward long-term sustainability.
“College education nationwide is going up and I’m excited the Gates Foundation is looking at our state in particular,” he said. “They’re taking a national view, and if you compare us to the nation we’re below average. But we think looking at things like administrative costs, classroom efficiency and the use of technology will give us more opportunities to save.”
It’s not just the price of tuition that is rising, according to the state audit. The overall cost has spiked with expanded requirements to live on campus and buy meal plans at some campuses. Mandatory fees also have increased to fund items such as new facilities and bigger sports programs.
However, the findings also include the fact that the USG’s revenue per full-time student rose only 2.6 percent a year, which tracks closely with the rate of inflation.
That’s partly because state funding did not keep up with enrollment. The 15 percent decrease — an average of $1,288 per student over the 10-year period — led USG schools to raise tuition and add a special institutional fee to offset the loss.
There’s also been less money for students from the HOPE Scholarship program. The average award decreased by 22 percent, $1,087 a year, and changes to the eligibility requirements resulted in fewer awards being made.
Hufstetler said a special audit of the Georgia Lottery Corp., which funds HOPE and other education initiatives, revealed a gap that will be addressed by lawmakers.
When the lottery was started, he said, the legislature envisioned a 35-percent profit to go to state schools, but the margin has dropped below 25 percent.
“Their argument is that fewer payouts will lead to fewer players, but their own audit says they shouldn’t be under 28 percent,” Hufstetler said. “It may mean fewer free tickets or some other mechanism — with triggers to stop it if we see decreasing sales — but the margin is going to have to come up.”
Lawmakers will also be considering other elements from the audits as they go through the budget process and hear from agency heads this month.
Hufstetler said the Senate passed legislation last year that would have increased the minimum amount of HOPE money given to students who attend less-expensive USG schools, as an incentive to start there. The bill did not make it through the House.
“Statistics show that students who go to a school like Georgia Highlands (College) and then on to (University of Georgia) have a better rate of graduation than those who start as freshmen at UGA,” he said. “We need to try to take more advantage of that.”
He also said they’ll be examining the possibility of extending last year’s tuition freeze another year.
“We’ve got to hold the line and get control of this, and I think the audit points us in the right direction,” Hufstetler said. “The lottery is a big one, and then the Gates study will give us a long-term strategy.”