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Heading into the new school year, state college students will find their wallets squeezed tighter than ever as tuition continues to climb.

Undergraduates at Virginia’s four-year public colleges and universities will see an average increase of 5.2 percent in tuition and mandatory fees compared to last year, the State Council of Higher Education said in a report released last week.

That amounts to an average increase of $544 billed to students, according to the annual report. George Mason University in Fairfax fell squarely in the middle of the pack overall, with a 4.8 percent increase in tuition and mandatory fees, or $474.

Tuition and instructional fees saw the steepest rise — 6.8 percent on average across four-year institutions. Other mandatory fees covering other facets of university life, including student health services, athletics and transportation, climbed just 2.3 percent on average.

That bump for noninstructional mandatory fees barely rises above the annual rate of inflation (2.1 percent).

“The increase in these fees is actually the smallest we’ve seen in at least 20 years,” said Dan Hix, SCHEV’s finance policy director.

George Mason was one of only three schools that saw a greater rate of increase in these noninstructional fees than in academic costs, according to the report. Its tuition and instructional fees went up by 4.7 percent, less than the state average, but its other mandatory fees increased by 4.9 percent.

“George Mason strives to keep college affordable and accessible while providing a strong return on investment for students,” school spokeswoman Michele McDonald said in a statement.

Yet universities walk a fine line between providing affordability and improving the student experience, Hix said.

“Some people might think these fees, which pay for things like athletics and student recreation, are going too far,” Hix said.

Noninstructional fees are easier for a university to control than its tuition, as public universities rely on state funding for educational costs. This year, due to the budget impasse in the General Assembly, higher education institutions had to set tuition rates without knowing how much money they would receive from the state.

Even if schools had all the cards on the table, though, it would not have changed much, Hix said. Despite initial promises of up to $100 million in additional higher education funding, in the end funding increased by just $5 million.

With tuition continuing to increase year after year, the student share of the cost of college education in Virginia has reached a record high, Hix said.

The state’s tuition policy sets a target for the General Assembly of covering at least 67 percent of the cost of education, leaving 33 percent for students. For the 2014-15 school year, Virginia students instead will cover 53 percent of educational costs.

“The weight of that burden has shifted significantly to the shoulders of students and parents,” Hix said. “That’s a result of the erosion of state support over the last decade. It would take a huge change to even approach that goal.”

kyanchulis@fairfaxtimes.com