Saturday, November 30, 2013

"as nearly free as possible"

Are you aware of Article 7, Section 16 of the Wyoming Constitution? It reads: “The university shall be equally open to students of both sexes, irrespective of race or color; and, in order that the instruction furnished may be as nearly free as possible, any amount in addition to the income from its grants of lands and other sources above mentioned, necessary to its support and maintenance in a condition of full efficiency shall be raised by taxation or otherwise, under provisions of the legislature.”

Wyoming’s Constitution actually says that instruction at the University must be QUOTE as nearly free as possible END QUOTE. It’s specific. Any cash shortfall toward reaching that goal from “its grants of land” must be made up by the legislature through “taxation or otherwise.”
But the University of Wyoming is at it again. UW believes “otherwise” means tuition, though relying on tuition increases renders the rest of Article 7, Section 16 meaningless.
At a recent UW Trustee’s meeting, the process started anew. The interim vice president for fiscal administration “briefed” the board on another fee and tuition raising proposal, saying, “There are no formal recommendations. This is just to get us talking.”
Yeah right. The track record at Laramie is that once they start talking about tuition hikes, students and parents need to get their wallets out. A continual series of tuition and fee increases have become as routine as singing “Ragtime Cowboy Joe.”
Some argue the University is still one of the “most affordable” colleges in America. So what? College educations are being priced out of the reach of too many.
One duty Cindy Hill retained after the legislature stripped the others is being an ex officio member of the UW trustees. She’s the only one in the room citing the state constitution. Hill is right, “It’s so important,” she said, “that we go back and honor our Constitution and the values in it.”
Framers of the constitution believed higher education so fundamental that the state’s only university should provide it “as nearly free as possible” giving the legislature the duty of covering costs through general appropriations or means other than tuition.
According to 38.0% of UW’s undergraduate students utilize federal student loans for their college education, averaging $6,868 per year. Borrowing at the average amount, leaves a debt of nearly thirty-five thousand dollars for a five-year education.
In 2011, 14% of incoming freshmen received no grants or scholarships. They paid an average of $23,534 in tuition and fees. The other 86% divided $7,933,015 in grants or scholarships leaving each them to pay $17,198 through loans or otherwise.

Argue all day long that is a “good bargain.” The car my wife recently bought was a good bargain but the dealer who sold it had no Constitutional obligation to make it available to her “as nearly free as possible.”

UW trustees, administrators, legislators, and others may compare the cost of an education in Laramie to the costs at other schools in other states. That is a false comparison. The Wyoming constitution, not what CSU, USC or Harvard charges, is the standard by which the cost of attending the University of Wyoming must be judged.

This isn’t an academic argument. Wyoming’s failure to abide by its own Constitution has dramatic impact on middle and low-income families.  Everyone knows the benefits of higher education correlates to higher lifetime income. Education is the gateway to upward mobility for the middle class. However, many middle-class Wyomingites either miss out on a college education because of high prices, or leave college with massive, crippling amounts of debt.

The words “as nearly free as possible” were intended to avoid that outcome and assure all Wyoming students the opportunity to a higher education. Is there a lawyer in the house? ioll, the embattled Superintendent of ublic Instruction, whoSomeone should walk into a Wyoming courtroom and ask the judge to interpret Article 7, Section 16. Those words “as nearly free as possible” must mean something or they would never have been written into the constitution.

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