The mechanism is a legislative veto for any tuition increase higher than the inflation rate as measured by the U.S. Consumer Price Index. On Tuesday, the University System of Georgia's Board of Regents approved a 3 percent boost in tuition, surpassing the 2.7 percent CPI.
Last year, the regents approved tuition increases from 4.3 percent to a whopping 16.5 percent, depending on each student's hours and school.
Some students got just a 3 percent increase in 2007, but for the majority of students, the cost of attending Georgia's public colleges has risen more than 3 percent every year since 2000, according to the university system's figures. Yet inflation since 2000 has ranged from negative 0.4 percent in 2009 to a high of 3.8 in 2008.
"As we have seen in recent years with tuition increases that have wildly outstripped the rate of inflation, the actions of the Board of Regents have a huge impact on Georgia's families," said Rep. Earl Ehrhart, R-Powder Springs, the chairman of the House Appropriations Higher Education Subcommittee.
EHRHART'S SUBCOMMITTEE determines what the House wants to give the university system from tax collections each year. However, it has no say on what the regents spend because the regents have free rein when it comes to tuition thanks to a constitutional separation designed to keep politics out of higher education.
Ehrhart is a co-sponsor of a constitutional amendment that would require tuition increases over the inflation rate receive approval by the General Assembly.
"In the current environment, it is important to reassess the relationship between the Board of Regents, elected officials, and the citizens of Georgia and improve accountability to our students," Ehrhart said.
The amendment, House Resolution 383, didn't come up for a vote during this year's legislative session. A committee hearing Ehrhart had scheduled late in the session was postponed when floor debates kept lawmakers in the House chamber, scrubbing all committee meetings that day. The proposal remains alive for next year's session.
One of the witnesses who was prepared to testify is Virginia Galloway, the president of Americans for Prosperity of Georgia, a tea party group.
"I think the Board of Regents is completely out of control in their spending," she said.
Last year, Ehrhart's Senate counterpart challenged the university system to show where it would cut if lawmakers shrank appropriations by $300 million and somehow blocked a tuition increase. The resulting list offered curtailed popular majors at many schools, cuts to the agricultural extension service the system operates and the elimination of the 4-H youth program the extension service runs.
"They go out of the way to identify cuts to the things that will be the most painful to the public so there will be a public outcry," Galloway said.
There were protests at many campuses and several demonstrations at the Capitol. In the end, legislators cut less, and tuition rose.
However, Senate Appropriations Chairman Jack Hill, R-Reidsville, has said lawmakers knew they could cut the university system without harming quality because the regents can replace the money with higher tuition.
Since the 1990s, the share of each student's education funded by taxpayers has declined, from 75 percent to 54 percent today.
Administrators argue that they need more tuition to maintain quality.
"You have to look at it from a quality perspective," Chancellor Erroll Davis said. "What are the quality alternatives to Georgia Tech in this country? And I think you will find that the quality alternatives to Georgia Tech are quite a bit more expensive than Georgia Tech."
University of Georgia President Michael Adams said it another way.
"The worst thing that Georgia State, Georgia Tech and the University of Georgia could do is to reduce quality," he said. "The biggest way we could cheat the young people of Georgia is to say, 'OK, we're going to be just another state university.' The long-term implications of that for the state are more difficult than our dealing with the current financial difficulties."
GEORGIA'S COLLEGES have seen their status rise in the last 15 years. Much of the reason is because the HOPE Scholarship. Bright students who might have gone to college in other states before, stayed in-state to get a free ride, raising the average SAT scores, enrollment and other factors used in rating schools.
Georgia tuitions at four-year public colleges are lower than nine of 15 other Southern states.
However, all colleges might be hitting the peak of what students and their parents will stomach, according to David Spence, the president of the Southern Regional Education Board, a clearinghouse supported by 16 states.
"The cost of a degree is going to have to come down," he said. "Higher ed, post-secondary education, is going to have to do its part, whether it's through technology or the hours."
Tennessee-based education consultant Will Pinkston suggested better use of college resources, such as more summer school instead of leaving buildings nearly vacant, online classes and scheduling courses based on practicality instead of professors' preferences.
"There's been a deference over the years to college and university academic leadership," he said. "People are beginning to question, 'Are we getting our money's worth in some of these programs?'"