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Shifting Priorities Seen Wreaking Havoc With College Budgets

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WASHINGTON--Shifting policy and fiscal priorities of the federal and state governments are damaging public higher education, the presidents of 16 public colleges and universities warned at a press conference here last week.

Largely because of the increasing costs of meeting federal mandates on environmental quality, Medicaid, welfare, and other programs, the presidents argued, states have slashed their higher-education budgets. As a result, public institutions are experiencing dramatic increases in tuition, threats to access, the erosion of educational quality, and a reduction in staff and faculty, they charged.

Moreover, the presidents contended, programs such as corrections and elementary and secondary education are taking a priority over higher education.

"What I see going on right now seems to me a fundamental shift in public policy of funding public higher education,'' said Lattie F. Coor, the president of Arizona State University.

"We are a variable in the budget sense,'' Mr. Coor said. "Variables, when you have tight budget times, as in household budgets, are the first to go.''

The presidents, members of the National Association of State Universities and Land Grant Colleges meeting here last week, said they were seeking to signal the public that public higher-education institutions are in dire financial straits and that there is no relief in sight.

"It's not a matter of complaining, it's a matter of these universities--
and others that couldn't be here--they are making tough choices,'' said C. Peter McGrath, the president of the association. "They are making changes. They aren't afraid of scrutiny, and we want to sound the alarm.''

Mr. McGrath said the increasing attention lawmakers are paying to elementary and secondary education should not come at the expense of higher education.

Nevertheless, he added, "If all the attention being paid to elementary and secondary education dramatically improved elementary and secondary education ... the people at this table would be among those cheering the loudest.''

Paying More For Less

Among the hardships described by the university presidents were:

  • A decrease in higher-education appropriations of 32 percent over the last four years in Oregon. The reductions have lead to the layoffs of 150 administrators, staff, and faculty; the closing of several departments, programs, and one college; and a tuition increase of 33 percent at Oregon State University, according to ïŸóŸõŸ's president, John V. Byrne.

Mr. Byrne noted that a property-tax cap passed by state voters in 1990 has reduced local funding for schools and required the state to make up the shortfall. Hence, he said, fewer dollars are available for higher-education programs.

"The ultimate loser is the student--the student of today and the student who elects to come to our institution in the future,'' he said.

  • Budget cuts of 5 percent last year and up to 4 percent this year at historically black Florida A & M University have led to a 16 percent increase in tuition, elimination of programs, increased class sizes, cuts in library operating hours, and a reduction in summer school.

"In good times, minorities flourish,'' said the university's president, Frederick Humphries. "In bad times, they suffer the most.''

  • The University of Maryland system has endured budget cuts of 8.6 percent last year and 8.1 percent this year, losing 20 percent of its state general-fund support over the last 20 months, according to Donald Langenberg, the president of the system.

The reductions have led to a 1991-92 tuition increase of 11.5 percent, Mr. Langenberg noted. Campuses are eliminating programs; restricting library hours, staff, and acquisitions; deferring maintenance; reducing class offerings; imposing hiring freezes and furloughs; and eliminating salary increases.

"We've been forced to ask [students] to pay more for less,'' he added.

'Undoing the Best'

The presidents' comments echoed findings of a number of surveys in recent months that have portrayed the tough time colleges are having in dealing with the budget crunch.

An American Council on Education survey released last fall, for example, showed that 64 percent of public, four-year institutions and 47 percent of public, two-year institutions experienced midyear cuts in their level of state funding during the 1990-91 academic year. (See Education Week, Sept. 11, 1991.)

In addition, an American Association of State Colleges and Universities survey revealed that 28 states expected to cut higher-education budgets during the 1991-92 academic year. Nineteen states had already enacted midyear budget cuts when the survey was released in February. (See Education Week, Feb. 12, 1992.)

The college presidents' appearance last week represented the first collective effort, however, to explain what the cuts have meant in real terms on college campuses.

"What we're talking about is the slow undoing of the best of what America has to offer,'' Mr. Humphries said.

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