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Pulling the plug — A perfect storm is brewing that could change higher education

Published: Sunday, Feb. 27 2011 11:25 p.m. MST

Ellen Babbitt, a higher education attorney based out of Illinois, said over the last several years, more colleges are coming to her about closing programs and even whole campuses because of budget constraints.

"My observation is that they are under extreme pressure," Babbitt said of universities around the nation especially in California, Nevada, New York and even Illinois. "They have serious budgetary issues and worry about where the money is going to come from."

With budgets being slashed across the nation, a higher push for students to go to college and enrollment numbers climbing, this has created a perfect storm that many say will change the way public higher education is funded forever.

Currently many colleges are relying on students to bear the burden.

Since 2001, Utah's average in-state, public tuition has more than doubled.

Over the last three decades in fact, tuition nationwide has risen nearly four times that of inflation, according to the National Center for Public Policy and Education.

Yet, Kevin Carey, policy director for the Education Sector, said the price of higher education is "out of control." Carey wrote an article titled "Drowning in Debt: The Emerging Student Loan Crisis" and said rising tuition costs have forced young people to go into thousands of dollars worth of debt. Not only are more students borrowing money than ever before, they are also borrowing larger amounts of money. Students now graduate four-year colleges with an average of $24,000 worth of debt, according to the The Project on Student Debt. The District of Columbia has the highest average of student debt at over $30,000 while Utah has the lowest student debt average with just under $13,000.

Utah also has one of the cheapest in-state tuition costs in the country, but Sederburg said he suspects tuition will rise over the next couple of years to compensate for cuts and said fiscally, Utah higher ed is about 10 years behind the rest of the country.

Sederburg said tuition is only one way of handling continued cutbacks though, adding that there is "a limit to what tuition can bear." He said he has presented other options to universities on ways to handle the cutback from the state. One is to become more efficient, which he said many universities have already been doing over the last couple of years and continue to do with each cut. The other idea he has is to establish a local tax base.

"At some point residents of communities will have to be thinking in terms of funding K-14," Sederburg said. "Ultimately we will not be able to grow without additional revenue stream."

National organizations also see a major re-haul in finances coming in the next 10 years.

"The current prolonged recession means that we can no longer expect new revenue to pay for increasing attainment in higher education," said Jane V. Wellman, Executive Director of the Delta Cost Project, which does a study every year on the cost of higher education. "In the next decade, we are going to be lucky to hold onto the resources we have. That means that all institutions – from the Ivies to the community colleges –are going to have to develop investment strategies that support goals for attainment. That will require new habits: looking at spending, and promoting the values of efficiency and cost effectiveness as co-partners to the never-ending search for new revenues."

e-mail: slenz@desnews.com

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