The relationship between state legislatures and state universities works differently in different states. While the legislatures always support the state’s public colleges, some are less generous than others.

There’s also an issue of control. In many states the legislature has no power over tuition at state universities. In other states, (e.g. New York) the legislature has total control and the colleges cannot raise tuition without legislative approval, no matter how little money they get from the state.

In Indiana however, the relationship is a little more complicated. The state appropriates money and “recommends” tuition costs. Then the public colleges decide what to charge. That’s not working out so well.

According to an Associated Press article in the Chicago Tribune:

Indiana’s top higher education official warned Monday that legislators may demand explanations from public colleges and universities if the schools approve tuition hikes in excess of caps recently suggested by a state panel.

Earlier this month, the state’s higher education commission asked Indiana’s seven public colleges and universities to raise tuition for in-state students by no more than 2.5 percent to 3.5 percent. If schools approve sharper tuition increased, top lawmakers may have some tough questions, said Teresa Lubbers, the state’s higher education commissioner.

Indiana University has proposed a total tuition and fee increase of 5.5 percent for 2011-12. Other state schools in Indiana have proposed increases in the 4 to 5 percent range.

Despite Lubbers’ ominous warning, just bringing university officials in to answer “tough questions” has limited power to improve make college affordable. The only power the legislature has is to give the schools more or less money. And reducing funding will just lead the colleges to increase tuition even more.

Daniel Luzer

Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer