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

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

PROVO — In front of hundreds of students, faculty and staff this month, Matthew Holland laid out the dire financial situation at Utah Valley University.

The university is set to become the largest one in Utah come fall. It plans on adding 350 faculty and staff over the next 10 years, but it also needs over $45 million more from the state in that time period to deal with the surging enrollment.

"We are to be commended for doing more with less, but we cannot continue on this trajectory and survive," Holland said. "We cannot continue to cut and do what we need to do. We cannot take on additional students without additional resources."

Over the last few years, this scene has played out in states across the country. Already cash-strapped colleges are encountering budget cuts at the same time they are seeing record-level enrollments. Tuition costs seem to be going out of control with no end in sight. Students are going into more debt than ever before, and colleges are having to choose what programs to cut and which professors to layoff.

Washington lawmakers are looking at cutting $780 million from their higher-ed budget over the next two years, which universities presidents there say would force them to dramatically raise tuition, cut hundreds of faculty and staff, increase the amount of time it takes for students to graduate and increase the acceptance rates of higher-paying, out-of-state students while decreasing the acceptance rate of in-state students.

Nevada is considering closing down five of its nine higher education institutions because of budget shortfalls this legislative term. And in California, at least three universities are considering going private because of the state's lack of funding. In Connecticut, Montana and South Dakota, college students have already staged or are planning on staging protests over proposed higher education cuts.

And while Utah isn't in quite the ominous situation as other states, Bill Sederburg, commissioner of higher education, says the state seems to be moving in that direction.

Stephen Urquhart, the senate chair for the Higher Educations Appropriations Committee, said he remembers Utah paying 75 percent of public college expenses several years ago; now he said that number is closer to 50.

"We are in different financial times," Urquhart said. "States can not pour as much into higher ed as they once could, which puts more of a financial burden on students. That means students need to come into college with a little more focus and idea of what they want to do than what people my age did."

Some like Sen. Howard Stephenson, R-Draper, say there is no choice but to cut back on higher ed. He said the state is having to cut across the board and that means higher ed, too. According to a study released last summer, states nationwide were subsidizing public research and four-year colleges near or below 50 percent. But these numbers were from 2008, and researchers believe the amount of money states have invested in higher ed over the last three years has gone down.

Last year, the state subsidized UVU's expenditures by just 45 percent, which makes it technically a state-assisted school instead of a state-funded one. All other public universities in the state were subsidized between 54 and 79 percent. But even schools like Weber State University, with a 55-percent subsidy, say they have reached a breaking point. The college has seen a 14 percent cut in tax funds over the last two years, said Norm Tarbox, vice president of administrative services at the school. In that time, the college has cut 140 positions, raised class sizes and relied more on adjunct faculty.

"There are very few places, if any, we can go to reduce our expenditures more without dramatically affecting the quality of our institutions and our degrees," he said.

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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