A report released Friday by the state Office of Program Review and Investigations found the University of Connecticut is becoming less affordable and suggested the university adopt additional cost transparency measures to help students better plan their expenses.

“UConn’s affordability has declined but that the university generally compares favorably to other flagship universities and to its peers,” researchers concluded.

The report found that UConn’s in-state prices have been rising by between 8 and 10 percent over the past few years. But about 80 percent of incoming UConn students do not pay the actual “sticker price” of tuition.

The concept of affordability was based on income level.

“What seems affordable to one student and family may not be to another,” researcher Janelle Stevens told legislators. “The cost and short-term costs of college are high, but the return may come over a long-term period. With an uncertain return, people may be more unlikely to undertake higher costs.”

The report determined that costs for in-state students are comparatively high, ranking about 10th to 16th highest compared to the 50 other flagship schools in various categories. The gap is even wider for out-of-state students, where UConn ranks between seventh and ninth in terms of costs.

The report released Friday showed UConn’s price tag as a high one for the lowest income bracket: even with financial aid, households making under $30,000 must use an estimated 48 percent of income to cover the costs. However, in that category, UConn actually fares well compared to other flagships.

It’s in the middle- and upper-income brackets that UConn’s cost fares poorly compared to other flagship schools, ranking between 11th and 21st highest out of 50. These families are eligible for less federal aid, and the report indicates that the percent of income that a family must use to pay for UConn has increased across all brackets by 7 percent over the past three years, which “was higher than the majority of flagships.”

Stevens and Scott Simoneau, who prepared the report for the committee, built upon the earlier draft report with more statistics and unveiled recommendations to legislators. Among them: increasing the transparency of how financial aid is awarded and implementing a system that tracks the payback UConn students are getting on their degrees.

However, UConn does not track its graduates with any uniform method. Though some institutions have a system for tracking the returns recent graduates get on their degrees in the workforce, UConn’s system is “done on a program by program basis,” according to Stevens, and UConn was “not comfortable” releasing its data.

The report, released Friday, also recommends that UConn should develop a system to better inform incoming and current students of price increases on the university’s website.

“UConn’s known increases [are] not well publicized,” the report reads. “Even when the university has set a tuition and fee schedule covering multiple future years, the information is not easily available to prospective or current students.”

The UConn Board of Trustees approved a plan in 2012 to increase tuition to $10,368 for in-state students by 2016. That will be a 10.7 percent increase from this year’s $9,256 tuition for in-state students.

The report also recommended initiating a study looking into the feasibility of implementing a “guarantee program,” which would promise incoming freshmen that their tuition price would not increase during their college careers.

“We found that about 320 institutions offered tuition guarantees as of the fall of 2012,” Simoneau said. Though the rules vary for whom tuition freezes, they aim to help families better plan college costs.

Another option Simoneau proposed was a pledge or debt-reduction program. These programs limit debt for certain students, particularly among those in the low-income bracket. He pointed to the University of Arizona’s “Arizona Assurance” program.

“It’s a no-loan program where the maximum eligible income allowed is $42,000.” Simoneau said the program guarantees coverage of college costs except for the “Expected Family Contribution,” which is a dollar amount determined by federal law that a student’s family can afford to spend on college relative to its income.

Debt-reduction programs expand beyond pledge programs to encompass even middle-income students. Simoneau said 12 of 50 flagship universities in the nation offer pledge programs, and four of those 12 offer debt-reduction programs.

The report also called for improved disclosure of how decisions about financial aid awards are made. Though financial aid spending has increased by 47 percent above inflation, the report states that the process by which the funds are allocated is “opaque.”

“Policymakers do not have a clear understanding of UConn’s financial aid policies,” the report says. “Information about typical college prices actually paid by students, especially those in difficult financial circumstances, is not easily available.”

The increased spending on financial aid by the university is what Wayne Locust, UConn’s vice president of enrollment planning and management, highlighted in a brief statement issued shortly after the meeting.

“We’re very pleased that the PRI report has shown the University of Connecticut excels in providing an affordable, high-quality education for our students, regardless of their economic means,” Locust said.

How UConn stacks up

A report released in October by the same researchers indicated that the average percentage of UConn students who graduate with debt — 63 percent — is a significant mark above the average for state flagship universities at 50 percent. The average price tag of that debt is about $23,822, and about 2.3 percent of recent graduates must default on their debt.

UConn does, however, fare well when comparing the school’s price to the median annual income. However, as PRI co-chair Sen. John Kissel, R-Enfield, pointed out in October, Connecticut’s income data is skewed by the high incomes in Fairfield County, meaning that UConn’s affordability for college hopefuls outside of that county may paint a different picture.

When out-of-state students are accounted for, however, UConn loses the buffer of a high median income and stacks up worse against other flagship universities. This, however, has not kept out-of-state students away from the school. And, as Kissel pointed out Friday afternoon, that may have implications for Connecticut taxpayers and its job market.

UConn and the Connecticut Workforce

Kissel said he’s heard concerns from his constituents that UConn has been admitting a disproportionately high percentage of out-of-state applicants in order to benefit from the additional revenue the university gets by charging higher tuition. In the 2013-14 school year, out-of-state students were charged $28,204 in tuition compared to the $9,256 in-state rate.

Simoneau said that the percent of out-of-state students at UConn has increased from 20 percent in 1995 to 30 percent in 2012 at the Storrs campus.

Although the number of students enrolled at UConn overall has increased, and the number of in-state enrollees has increased, the “slice of the pie” taken up by out-of-state students has gotten bigger.

There was no data shared, however, regarding how many in-state applicants are denied compared to out-of-state applications. And there was no indication of possible demographic changes in Connecticut that could account for the change.

Committee Co-chair Rep. Mary Mushinsky, D-Wallingford, said increased enrollment of out-of-state students is not necessarily an issue if — after they graduate — they stay in Connecticut and contribute to the state’s workforce.

However, because UConn does not track that type of data, the report does not indicate how many out-of-state students land jobs in Connecticut. Mushinsky said this is a vital consideration, however, considering the tax dollars state residents invest in the university.

“If we have an ever-increasing number of out-of-state students but they’re filling needs and staying here, I’m OK with it. If they’re not, it’s not a good thing,” she said.

Mushinsky also expressed concerns about degrees from UConn matching up with the state’s workforce needs.

Simoneau replied that Next Generation Connecticut — a $1.5 billion capital bond investment approved last summer — aims to address just that problem by expanding the school’s science, technology, math, and engineering programs.

NextGen, Simoneau said, hopefully also will address the report’s findings that UConn has lagged behind its peers in terms of its capacity as a research institution.

Reasons for Rising Costs

Regardless of how UConn stacks up to its peers, the report is another of many indicators of the national trend of climbing college costs. The report attributed the trend to several factors, including increased competition among universities to provide more services, expand, and to attract more students.

UConn’s budget has expanded to keep pace with that competition. For this year, the school had to dip into its reserve funds to help close a $28.5 million budget gap.  And, as the report states, it has a high level of unilateral decision making that helps the university do that.

Connecticut universities, the reports says, “unlike some states . . . create and approve their own budgets, establish their own tuition rates, and retain tuition revenue.”

At the same time, “the state is a substantial funder of UConn, contributing about 30 percent of the university’s operating revenues,” the report said. However, the university has recently seen a drop in state funds that aid operating costs.

The state legislature has also given $2 billion in bond funding over the past 18 years, not including the $1.5 billion NextGen fund, for capital expansion.

Kissel said in closing remarks Friday that he knows the university “does wonderful things,” and he is open to reconsidering how the state legislature provides financial support to UConn — but he wants the lines of communication to stay open, particularly about how much the university is giving back to the taxpayers who help fund it.

“If I sound a little bit critical, I am a little bit critical,” he said. “And it’s not for lack of outreach or because I don’t believe we have great people at the University of Connecticut . . . I love the school, but I do get concerned that as they have risen, and we have invested tons in their capital infrastructure . . . if less of the overall institution is for our kids.”