University fees stonewalled by state

Jessica White

Hundreds of dollars for students in fees approved by the Board of Trustees have hit a wall: Chancellor Eric Fingerhut.

Disagreements between the Kent State administration and Ohio’s top higher education official could spoil the university’s plans for $250 million in campus-wide renovations.

The university needs approval from Fingerhut, chancellor of the Ohio Board of Regents, by Nov. 8 to borrow $210 million in bonds for the renovations at a low interest rate. That rate will expire at the end of the year.

Although Fingerhut supports the construction plans, he opposes the fees largely because the students who will pay them won’t be the ones who benefit from the projects. He said yesterday that no student fee should be implemented until the renovations are complete.

Kent State officials, however, say they can’t postpone the fees because once the bonds are on the market, the university needs to start making payments immediately.

“It doesn’t have the necessary protections for students or the state,” Fingerhut said. “So I can’t support (the proposal) in its current form.”

In the current proposal, students would have to pay a $7-per-credit-hour fee starting in 2012 to help pay off the bonds. The fee would gradually increase to $24 per credit hour by 2016.

That would amount to $720 in additional fees, on top of tuition, which is now $9,030 per year.

Fingerhut also said he wants to see a plan for lowering costs at the regional campuses before he can support that kind of increase.

Kent State has the largest number of regional campuses in Ohio (seven), while Ohio University has the second largest (six) — yet a student attending a Kent State regional campus will pay about $500 to $1,000 more per year than one attending an Ohio University regional campus.

Lower tuition would attract more students, boosting Kent State’s revenue as well as the Ohio economy, Fingerhut said.

To compromise, the university’s current proposal offers a 35 percent discount on tuition for upper-division courses on the regional campuses and a frozen lower-division course tuition for two years.

But Fingerhut called this commitment “meaningless” because it will be considered null and void if the state reduces the State Share of Instruction, an allotment that covers about a quarter of public universities’ operating budgets.

The university administration is also asking for the proposed student fees to be exempt from any tuition caps or freezes — setting a different tuition and fee cap for Kent State than any other Ohio public university during the five-year construction period.

Fingerhut has refused to support it, saying “it could hurt students” and might “seriously undermine the credibility” of future attempts to reign in higher education costs.

President Lester Lefton could not be reached for an interview but said in an e-mail:

“Kent State looks forward to continued conversations with the Chancellor. We are committed to his vision of the University System of Ohio for affordable higher education as we also work to provide our students with the academic facilities necessary for a world-class education.”

University spokeswoman Iris Harvey said the fees will not go toward extra-curricular kinds of construction but rather academic ones.

The $250-million plan would renovate more than 30 buildings, including energy-efficiency upgrades, and construct a centralized home for the architecture program, which is now spread across campus.

Several students have said they support the renovations and are willing to pay the fees.

“There do need to be some renovations around here,” said Patrick Majercak, junior advertising major. “I’m for it if it makes Kent a better college.”

And Harvey says it’s a good investment.

“We found that instead of doing recreational things, that our money would best be spent on the academic mission of our university,” she said.

But Fingerhut said “special fees are for special services.”

“The assumption is that the tuition you pay entitles you to the use of the academic buildings,” he said.

Often capital improvement projects at universities are paid for from the state capital budget. Board of Regents spokesman Rob Evans said Kent State’s funding plan is “a bit of an exceptional strategy.”

“I’ve never said no from the outset to a new idea, and I’ve been open to this idea and approach that Kent State has brought forward,” Fingerhut said. “But the details of it do not contain the sets of protections that I have to assure for students and for the state.”

For previous articles pertaining to the project, read New fee coming soon, Stop asking students to sacrifice and Students to fund renovation plan.

Contact Jessica White at [email protected].