EMU posts a score of zeroes

August 30, 2010
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When the Eastern Michigan University Board of Regents unanimously agreed last spring not to raise tuition and fees for the 2010-11 academic year, the vote reportedly marked the first time in 25 years that a public university in the state had held the line on such a year-to-year increase.

Their decision made the Ypsilanti school one of only three in the nation to enact a tuition freeze for the current academic year. The regents also refused to raise the cost for room and board.

“We have a responsibility to take the risk this decision represents to step up and help our families afford college in Michigan. Our low tuition, room-and-board rates are the result of increased enrollment and management focus on cost savings and efficiencies, as well as increased vigilance in all areas of spending,” said EMU President Susan Martin, following the board’s vote in April.

Tuition for an in-state student who took 30 credit hours at EMU last year was $8,377. This academic year, those 30 credit hours will cost the same, and the price freeze gives EMU the 13th lowest tuition-and-fees figure this year among the state’s 15 public universities. The room-and-board rate, based on double occupancy, remains at $7,786.

At the same time, EMU increased its financial aid to students by $1.4 million from last year. The university’s financial aid total is $30.4 million this year.

How can EMU afford to freeze its prices and raise its financial aid when others seemingly can’t? To start with, EMU Executive Director of Media Relations Geoff Larcom said the Board of Regents and Martin are very aware of the economic difficulties many of the university’s students and their families are facing. “That puts you in touch with sort of the blunt edge of the reality,” he said.

“A second factor is the president is pretty well doggoned versed in finance. She was with the state budget department and was a professor of accounting. So she is pretty versed in these things. She worked hard with our chief financial officer, John Lumm, to make the numbers work, and it’s predicated on a number of assumptions,” he added.

Larcom said one of the freeze assumptions is that Eastern’s enrollment will grow. It rose by 4 percent last year. This year’s goal is a nudge above 3 percent, but EMU won’t have the final figure until later in the academic year. Another assumption is that the state would limit its appropriations cut to colleges to 3.1 percent, a decrease the state Senate approved in March. The state House’s budget doesn’t reduce the appropriation.

“In some ways, it’s a risky move. It’s a bold move. It’s a historic move. But by saving on energy costs and a variety of other costs, they were able to balance the budget and make it work,” said Larcom of the university’s $280.9 million budget.

“And now we’ll see what happens. Obviously, if we fall short, we have reserves or other things we can change. But that’s how they made it work. And because of good financial management, there was a surplus to a certain degree from the year before.”

Because of the zero-percent increase, some undergraduate students or their families may qualify for the Michigan College Tuition Income Tax Credit program. It’s an 8 percent credit for the current tax year that can be applied to loans and out-of-pocket expenses. The maximum credit amount is $375. A tax filer must be a permanent Michigan resident and have an adjusted gross income for the year of less than $200,000 to qualify for the credit.

But the credit is only available at a state college where the 2010 tuition and fee increase didn’t exceed the 2009 Consumer Price Index, which was zero last year. EMU is the state’s only college eligible for the tax-credit program due to its tuition freeze.

EMU earned another zero when its health insurance provider, UnitedHealthcare, decided not to raise premiums to students. The Dallas-based insurer had planned to increase premiums by 5 percent, but then chose to keep the rate flat for the academic year after EMU officials told UnitedHealthcare of its zero hikes for tuition, fees, and room and board. That means the rate for the comprehensive student health insurance plan will remain at $943 a year. It’s the third consecutive year that UnitedHealthcare has kept rates flat for EMU students.

“It wasn’t easy,” said Larcom of the university’s decision to freeze costs. “But it’s the right move at the right time given the conditions that prevail here.”

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