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Published in Print: April 2, 2008, as States Target Higher Ed. for Cuts Once Again

States Target Higher Ed. for Cuts Once Again

Actions could make choices more difficult for high school students.

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With some states needing to slash billions of dollars from their budgets this fiscal year—and fiscal 2009 not looking much brighter—K-12 isn’t the only area of education targeted for spending cuts.

Higher education, which also accounts for a large percentage of discretionary spending in state budgets, is feeling the effects of the slow revenue growth, too. Consequently, tuition and fees at public colleges and universities are likely to continue going up, and state scholarship programs might get more competitive. All this is worrisome news for high school students, their parents, and school counselors.

Continued spikes in the cost of attending college are certain to have “implications in terms of student access,” said Murray J. Haberman, the executive director of the California Postsecondary Education Commission, an agency that plans and coordinates higher education in the state—one of several where cuts in higher education are occurring. “People still think there is value in higher education, but families are going to be making different decisions,” he said, about whether their children go to college at all.

The deficits come at a time when states have been strengthening efforts to improve high school graduation rates and make students more focused on preparing for college or a career. For example, a bill in the California legislature would establish an “early-commitment program” guaranteeing students a spot in a community college—or a university if they met application guidelines—in exchange for taking rigorous courses and fulfilling high school graduation requirements.

‘Disproportionate Share’

Experts who track state budgets say the true impact of cuts on programs seeking to increase college attendance by low-income and other underrepresented students won’t be known until later this spring.

Arturo Perez, a fiscal analyst at the Denver-based National Conference of State Legislatures, said a number of states, as they did last year, might “go into extra innings” in enacting budgets, leaving difficult spending decisions until the summer months.

Kevin Carey, the research and policy manager at Education Sector, a Washington-based think tank, pointed out that higher education took significant cuts the last time states experienced deficits, and said that it hasn’t fully recovered.

“There is a very clear pattern that has occurred in previous recessions, where higher education takes a disproportionate share of the brunt” of budget reductions, he said. “The people who feel it most are the lower-income students, who are on the precipice of going to college or not going to college.”

Higher education systems go through a cycle of experiencing cuts and then raising tuition to maintain their programs, Mr. Carey added, but that “tuition never comes back down again.”

In California, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s fiscal 2009 proposed budget includes less spending—about $300 million each—for both the University of California and the California State University systems.

While the governor’s office is encouraging both systems to eliminate the funds from administrative functions, they are also expected to limit enrollment and increase fees. The UC system, which has a current total budget of $5.4 billion, has already proposed a 7.4 percent increase in fees, and the CSU system, whose budget is $4.4 billion, has proposed a 10 percent hike.

A more than $435 million reduction is also being recommended for the community college system as part of a proposed suspension of the state’s Proposition 98 funding guarantee, which sets minimum funding levels for both K-12 schools and two-year colleges.

K-12 Layoffs a Factor

Another program that could see downsizing is the California Student Opportunity and Access Program—a 30-year-old effort designed to encourage middle and high school students “to take that big step forward and to better themselves by getting a postsecondary education,” said Tom Mays, a spokesman for the California Student Aid Commission.

The governor’s fiscal 2009 spending proposal would cut 10 percent from the $6.3 million program, which includes tutoring, college-campus tours, and financial-aid workshops.

Enacted and Proposed Budget Reductions

Republicans recommend a $36 million cut in funding—or 10 percent—for the University of Arizona, but Gov. Janet Napolitano’s budget does not include such a cut.

The governor wants to cut 10 percent, or more than $600,000, from the California Student Opportunity and Access Program, a 30-year-old endeavor designed to encourage middle and high school students to pursue college. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger is also proposing a $57 million reduction for the competitive Cal Grant scholarship, which targets older applicants who have been out of school a few years. While current grants would be renewed, new grants would not be awarded.

Gov. Steve Beshear has recommended a $12 million cut in funding for the Kentucky Education Excellence Scholarship, a merit-based program. So far, the House has restored the funding in its version of the fiscal 2009 spending plan.

More than $57 million, or 4.5 percent, has been cut from the state’s higher education system for the 2007-09 biennium. While the cuts won’t affect need-based scholarships, they could mean fewer courses offered and a harder time for students to get help at the financial-aid office.

Mr. Schwarzenegger, a Republican, is also proposing a $57 million decrease for the competitive Cal Grant scholarship, aimed at older applicants who have been out of school for a few years. Although current grants would be renewed, new ones wouldn’t.

“The need for these grants is actually expected to grow, not shrink,” because of the soft labor market, Mr. Mays said. And in community colleges, where the bulk of the nontraditional students receiving those grants enroll, class offerings may be limited because of the cuts, meaning it could take longer to earn a degree.

What is known as the “entitlement” version of the Cal Grant, for low-income students right out of high school, is being maintained in the governor’s fiscal 2009 proposal.

Gary Hoachlander, the president of ConnectEd, a Berkeley, Calif.-based center that works on making “multiple pathways” to college or a career available to high school students, said the pending layoffs of thousands of precollegiate teachers in the state could also be a setback to California’s progress in strengthening career and technical education programs.

If the proposed cuts for next fiscal year are as high as have been predicted—more than $4 billion out of a total education budget of some $56 billion—he said, “it seems almost certain that that will have a significant effect on any number of variables that figure into a student’s preparation for postsecondary education.”

Career and technical education teachers are often among the first to go when schools start cutting positions, Mr. Hoachlander added.

“When you send a pink slip to a career and technical education teacher, who defensively starts looking for another job outside of teaching, those teachers are gone. They’re not coming back,” he said. “They are the ones in the best position to find employment that is more lucrative.” ("Layoffs Loom Amid California’s Fiscal Crisis," March 19, 2008.)

‘Hard Times’

California is not the only state where the higher education community is being targeted for cuts.

In Kentucky, Gov. Steve Beshear, a Democrat who took office in January, has recommended a $12 million cut in funding for the merit-based Kentucky Education Excellence Scholarship in his fiscal 2009 budget proposal. While the House restored the funding in its version of the budget, the Senate has not completed work yet.

“We’re keeping our fingers crossed,” said Lori Powers, a spokeswoman for the Kentucky Higher Education Assistance Authority, which administers financial-aid programs. The authority has requested $91.7 million for the program, a 3 percent increase over the current level of $88.9 million.

Republican lawmakers in Arizona have recommended cutting $36 million from the University of Arizona campuses, in keeping with a 10 percent across-the-board cut for state agencies. But Democratic Gov. Janet Napolitano’s budget includes an increase of about $1.7 million.

In Nevada, Gov. Jim Gibbons, a Republican, proposed and won a 4.5 percent across-the-board cut for the 2007-09 biennium that slashed more than $57 million from the state’s colleges and universities. Compared with other states, Nevada’s higher education system gets only a small proportion of the state’s general fund, and student fees are used to cover need-based scholarships in the state.

Still, the rollbacks will mean students have fewer classes to choose from and a harder time getting assistance from financial-aid offices, said Jane Nichols, the vice chancellor for academic and student affairs for the Nevada System of Higher Education.

In Florida, where the legislature is debating midyear budget reductions, officials are still uncertain about how deeply the cuts will affect higher education.

But Bill Edmonds, a spokesman for the Florida board of governors, which oversees the postsecondary education system, said the state is being “hit very hard.”

“We’re having historic cuts being made this year,” he said. “Florida does provide state money for need-based aid, and we’re hoping that that is untouched.”

The university system was hoping to see an increase in funding for the need-based Student Assistance Grant program, he said, but “in these hard times, that may be an unrealistic expectation.”

Vol. 27, Issue 31, Pages 18,21

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