It was a bit disconcerting when the news release arrived outlining the tuition increases planned for two-year and four-year schools in the University of Arkansas system. The system board meets Friday, but the numbers are too specific for the changes not to be a done deal ó a 1.9 percent increase here, a 3.21 percent hike there, and 5.3 percent more for the campus with the biggest enrollment ó Fayetteville.

It was a bit disconcerting when the news release arrived outlining the tuition increases planned for two-year and four-year schools in the University of Arkansas system. The system board meets Friday, but the numbers are too specific for the changes not to be a done deal ó a 1.9 percent increase here, a 3.21 percent hike there, and 5.3 percent more for the campus with the biggest enrollment ó Fayetteville.

Donít they know the economy hasnít fully recovered, that in some sectors it hasnít really even started to recover? Donít they know that people are trying to figure out how to pay for almost $4-a-gallon gasoline to get back and forth to work while still being able to buy food? Donít they know that the real estate market, low-interest rates and all, is off limits to young people who want to get ahead because most canít qualify for a loan? Donít they know that kids are borrowing more and paying back less to go to school so they can make an opportunity for themselves to become a productive citizen, only to find out there arenít enough jobs?

I donít have any high schoolers or recent graduates at my house, so it wonít have any great impact on me personally if students at UA-Fayetteville pay 5.3 percent more to get an education. I have a grown daughter with two children trying to go back and finish her education, but a few more dollars wonít be a deterrent for someone taking a few hours here and there. Itís the full time on-campus dwellers or daily commuters that will be hit the hardest.

All of us have heard about money being tight and how raises either arenít planned or wonít keep up with even modest inflation. That story isnít new. Most of us have had to tighten our financial belts; weíre making difficult choices about where and how to spend our money while trying to save a little for a rainy day (and/or retirement).

Do colleges and universities need to give staff and faculty pay increases? Do schools need to upgrade facilities and equipment? Should schools be offering better accommodations?

The answers, of course, are all ďyes.Ē

Is this the time right to do any of that? Unfortunately, thatís a ďno,Ē at least if the prerequisite is to raise money on the backs of students.

It is not unreasonable to ask educators ó especially administrators, both in public K-12 and higher education ó to tighten belts accordingly. Obviously, public school and higher ed teachers and professors deserve better pay; their jobs are extremely important. The only way pay should be increased now, however, is if schools reassess their spending and find the money in that fashion. That actually should be encouraged.

Timing is a factor not to be ignored. Does anybody remember former Gov. Jim Guy Tuckerís proposal to improve interstate highways in Arkansas by approving a modest tax increase? The measure was defeated because about 70 percent of voters said no. The next governor, Mike Huckabee, proposed something very similar and it won overwhelming voter approval.

Was Huckabee a better salesman than Tucker? Yes, but that wasnít the primary factor. What sold Huckabeeís program was that timing was right. Itís all about timing.

Meanwhile, Gov. Mike Beebe is hoping to double the number of college graduates in Arkansas by 2025. Thatís a worthwhile and achievable goal. However, it seems unlikely it will be met if Arkansas colleges and universities continue to make higher education less attainable by raising tuition rates when people are struggling financially.

ē ē ē

Dennis A. Byrd is chief of the Arkansas News Bureau. His e-mail is dbyrd@arkansasnews.com.