By James Barraford
The Board of Trustees voted to extend its freeze on daytime undergraduate tuition fees and housing rates for Academic Year (AY) 2022-23 during its Jan. 23 meeting.
This is the second year tuition and fees have been frozen.
The decision was made to alleviate student economic stress caused by the COVID-19 pandemic and rising inflation.
Dale Hamel, executive vice president, said there were many factors that led to the decision.
Hamel said he hoped freezing tuition and housing would help maintain enrollment.
He said during the COVID-19 lockdown, there was a reduction in spending in areas such as food costs, training via online platforms, conferences, and travel. He said he expects the upcoming 2023 budgets to be more in line with historical costs.
“On the staff side, the reductions have largely been in IT administration and finance,” Hamel said, adding there have been “selective reductions on the faculty side” in response to enrollment reductions, which are closely aligned with the majors that have seen the “most significant reductions.
“The majority of the reductions came from non-personnel areas. So, we’ve been able to work closely with trust fund managers to identify areas where those non-personnel costs could be reduced,” he said.
Hamel said one of the Board of Trustees’ “major missions” was making higher education affordable for undergraduates.
He said that affordability includes listed price, net price, quality of instruction, and co-curricular activities.
During the pandemic, FSU received funding from the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) and MassGrant funds, which assist the most-needy students, he said, adding once these students’ needs are met, the next level of need can be assisted.
Hamel said he does anticipate the need to increase charges in the following year.
He said 65% of operating costs goes to personnel, as well as collective bargaining agreements, which “are not large, but have to be covered.”
Hamel added inflation has dramatically increased the cost of utilities.
He said with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, FSU is expecting a “pretty large anticipated increase in the upcoming fiscal year” in the cost of fuel.
Fringe benefits are another example of increased costs, he added.
He said in terms of revenue, FSU is “very fortunate” to have been able to “invest both the University’s endowment funds and The Foundation’s endowment funds.”
He said these funds have gone up in the past couple of years, although they have gone down in recent months.
“We use a rolling three-year average of fund balances, or investment balances, that subsidize the operating budget. So, the fact that our endowment goes up, there’s more annual funding each year that’s available to support the operating budget,” Hamel said.
He added the economic impact of COVID-19 will linger in the upcoming years.
Hamel said the Board of Trustees has contingency plans for responding to the ongoing challenge of COVID-19 as well as to its long-term impact.
He said, “We don’t anticipate, in the long run, actually getting back to the size institution that we were prior to enrollment reductions.”
Hamel said while these reductions began before COVID-19, the pandemic “exacerbated” them in the last two years.
“We recognize that we need to align the University with kind of a new reality relating to the size of the institution,” he said.
Hamel said he hopes to see students who have dropped out because of the pandemic return.
He said in addition to coming back, he wants students to catch up.
Hamel added students have been having difficulty with the online format of classes, which has resulted in a higher drop-out rate.
“We’ve got students needing to both catch up and to come back into the system,” Hamel said.
He said he hopes the University will retain more students post-pandemic.
“We’re certainly cognizant of the fact that not only has this been a financial impact to the University, but it’s been a financial impact to individuals as well, not only to students as individuals, but their families,” Hamel said.
“During this period, it just seems like a difficult time to increase charges when individuals are being impacted so much,” he added.
Ellen Zimmerman, interim provost and vice president of Academic Affairs, said the decision was just “the right thing to do.
“At this point, we need to really help people be able to afford their education,” Zimmerman said.
“One thing we really don’t want to have happen is to have students facing really, really tough
circumstances – in some cases, ending up going deeper into debt – struggling to try to stay in school,” she said.
Zimmerman said that by freezing tuition and housing rates, FSU was not increasing the financial burden of students when they may be dealing with other burdens, such as a sick family member.
“We want to adopt policies that will facilitate people being able to continue their education in every way that we can,” Zimmerman said.
Lorretta Holloway, vice president of Enrollment and Student Development, said the Board of Trustees is “very much concerned” about how much debt students have at the end of their education at FSU.
She said when COVID-19 happened, it “exposed cracks and fissures” within the higher education system.
She said what had been done to solve these issues in the past was only superficial, a “tape it up and hope for the best” attitude.
“COVID was like, ‘Oh, no, that’s funny you did that! I’m going to make sure that it’s all expensive!’” Holloway said.
She added COVID-19 caused many students to lose their jobs or have their hours cut.
Holloway said, “If you were struggling before, you were struggling more [now].”
She said it would “just be mean” to expect students to not be affected financially by the pandemic.
The University’s role, as much as possible, is to help students obtain their degree, she added.
“Why would you hit someone when they are down?” Holloway asked.
She said the decision was a cost-conscious one because even with the freeze, the school still needs to continue paying its own bills.
As a state institution, the residence halls are owned by the Building Authority, she said.
“We still owe money whether we fill the residence halls or not,” Holloway added.
She said enrollment and revenue have been going down, but, despite this, “Now is not the time [to raise rates].”
Holloway said the “easiest answer” would have been to raise student fees in order to recoup the financial loss from lower student enrollment.
“That was just something that nobody – nobody – was in favor of,” Holloway said.
She said the Board of Trustees recognizes FSU has a lot of competition for students in Massachusetts.
She added the Board works to find a balance between taking in revenue and not leaving students with an excessive debt.
Kevin Foley, chair of the Board of Trustees, said the decision to freeze undergraduate tuition and fees was “based on the recognition of the financial hardships incurred by students due to the pandemic.
“We realize the detrimental impact the pandemic had on the families of students and wanted to send a message of support,” Foley said.
He said this decision allows students a “more affordable experience with less of a debt burden.”
Foley added, “In addition, the Board believes with this action, FSU remains a top-value institution.
“FSU provides a compelling educational value compared to other state and private institutions,” he said.
McKenzie Ward, SGA president, said, “The decision to freeze these rates is extremely important because despite us seeing very low COVID-19 numbers, students are still facing the financial crisis that has been happening all around the world since the start of the pandemic.”
Ward added many students, on and off campus, lost their jobs because of the COVID-19 lockdown.
She said FSU is a “working campus,” and many students have part-time or full-time jobs.
“One complaint I’ve heard from students is the difficulties of trying to balance both working to earn the money needed for an education, but also maintaining a good enough GPA to feel like they’re getting the best education possible,” Ward said.
“It’s difficult to find a new job when you’re fighting with dealing with COVID-19, but also dealing with the stress of school,” she said.
Ward added this decision is important because it allows students to obtain an education without worrying about finding additional funds were tuition and fees increase.
She added, “I am super thankful to the University and the Board of Trustees for deciding to freeze tuition and fees and housing for next year. It definitely does not go unnoticed and it’s very appreciated by the students who are just trying to get through – day by day – the semester.
“Having one less thing to worry about – the added cost of education – is fantastic,” Ward said.
Student Trustee Hillary Nna said she was in agreement with the decision.
She said the Board of Trustee is “hopeful to do the same thing for the following academic year.
“They’re hoping to keep it going as long as they possibly can,” she added.
Hannah Polansky, a senior English major, said she was happy with the decision.
However, she said she thinks the cost should have been lowered a bit considering the pandemic’s impact on student services offered during the pandemic.
Polansky said she viewed the decision positively because paying tuition was already “overwhelming” and “at least” prices weren’t going up.
“I think it sends a good message to students and makes them feel like the school sort of cares for them,” she said.
“They have the decency to put a freeze on the already overwhelming costs of attending university during a time when money is tighter than ever for many students and their families,” Polansky said.
Nathan Rogers, a senior communication, media, and performance major, said he wondered if other schools would implement a tuition freeze as FSU has.
“I’m just curious if this is going to be more viral now,” Rogers said.
He said the decision would help students with rising educational costs in light of the pandemic and the recession.
Chester Macaskill, a senior accounting major, said the decision reduces the pressure “for the time being.”
Macaskill said most of his friends were on board with the decision because it allowed them to continue their education even though many lost their jobs during the pandemic.
“I think it shows us that they do want us to succeed and allows everyone to get an education,” Macaskill said. “For once, it seems like they are on our side.”
Joana Silva, a junior criminology major, said the decision is “very helpful” to students who are working to pay off their tuition.
“I just think that FSU is a school that really cares about their students and wants to make sure that they can get their experience any possible way,” Silva said.
[Editor’s Note: McKenzie Ward is Opinions Editor for The Gatepost.]