The crowd filling out applications at a campus job fair last week was just one sign of the times as Kansas and other public universities raise tuition this fall by percentages that often hit the double digits.
Students attending four-year public colleges and universities in 49 of the 50 states will feel the pinch of tuition hikes ranging from 1.7 percent in Montana to 39 percent in Arizona. Only Mississippi kept tuition at 2002-03 levels.
And while most of the roughly 6 million students at public, four-year colleges will be paying more, they'll be getting less in the way of services as schools struggle with budget cuts.
Students like Cox, an in-state philosophy major paying his own way through college, have been particularly hard-hit. He is taking 20 credit hours per semester and expects his tuition to rise by $800 this year.
"It's almost come to the point of starvation a few times, but I've always managed to find something," said Cox. "The plasma center will pay you $20 a pint - if you're willing to bleed for two hours."
Barmak Nassirian, associate executive director of the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers, said the tuition hikes were part of a pattern that began when governments gradually began shifting the burden of funding education to students and their parents in the late 1970s.
With family wealth supporting students at the high end of the economic spectrum, and increased financial aid assisting those at the lower end, Nassirian said students from middle-class backgrounds have borne the weight of cost increases.
"For the middle class, the basic, implicit social contract is beginning to fray," Nassirian said.
"The social contract, among other things, implied that in exchange for state taxes that they would have access to solid, quality higher education options. And they were guaranteed it would be affordable. And that affordability issue is where the middle class is getting nailed."
The increasing costs are evident in student loans: Sallie Mae, the country's largest provider of guaranteed loans, granted $6.8 billion in student loans during the first half of 2003 - compared to $5.6 billion in loans issued during the same period in 2002.
To offset budget cuts, Kansas is in the second year of a plan that will see tuition rise by $600 annually over five years.
Provost David Shulenberger acknowledged that the increases - 17.7 percent this year to $4,100 - induced "sticker shock" for upper classmen who arrived as freshmen expecting to receive an undergraduate degree at a uniformly low tuition rate.
To continue dedicating 20 percent of its tuition revenue to providing assistance to qualified students, the school has eliminated more than 150 staff positions and has closed public access to a popular anthropology museum.
But no faculty jobs have been lost and, in fact, Kansas plans to use the increased revenue to hire more teachers while boosting the salaries of part-time student teaching assistants.
At many other schools, it's been harder to find good news.
It will be a long time, for instance, before music majors at the University of Central Florida in Orlando benefit from long-promised construction.
"When we're struggling just to have enough classrooms for the 42,000 students we're expecting this fall, building a concert hall and building practice facilities is not a high priority," said Keith Koons, acting chair of the UCF music department.
Some schools are trying out innovative ways to make themselves more attractive.
Miami University of Ohio is preparing for the 2004 introduction of a plan that will charge identical tuition to in-state and out-of-state students.
Director of Admissions Mike Mills said the school hopes the plan will bring in more out-of-state students who have been considering expensive private schools. Residential scholarships of up to $10,000 annually will keep the school affordable for in-state students, he added.
The five-year plan at the University of Kansas will cap in-state tuition at $5,900 in 2006, aiming to give future students the promise of an education at a relatively low price.
But that won't help Fox.
"I think it's pretty unfair," he said as he filled out applications at the job fair. "I came here thinking it would be pretty affordable and pretty flat as far as tuition. But that hasn't been the case."
By Steve Giegerich By Steve Giegerich