November 19, 2009

Higher ed budgets are targets in the state budget war zones

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State budgets are war zones. And the evidence is all over the place. In Oregon, the recently retired president of the University of Oregon is calling for the conversion of the state’s largest universities into public corporations. That in order to save them, Dave Frohnmayer explains.

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In Washington, Gov. Christine Gregoire, facing down a budget gap estimated today at more than $2 billion, says this is going to be hard to fix. To make her point, she illustrates it like this:

Ending all state aid to the University of Washington and Washington State University would free up $493 million in the fiscal year that begins July 1, 2010. Shuttering the state’s 34 community and technical colleges, that would produce another $643 million in savings.

Now, she’s not really saying she’s going to do that. She also says shutting down Washington’s penal system would save about $800 million a year, in a story reported by Jerry Cornfield in the Everett Herald. And she’s not likely to do that wholesale either. But such examples, coupled with Frohnmayer’s proposal for the Oregon system, show what a corner higher education has been backed into.

Without such changes, Frohnmayer says in the report prepared at the request of the current chancellor of the university system, the system continues to disintegrate, destroying the state’s economic future and rendering it a “stagnant backwater.”

“There is no point in waiting until everything falls off a cliff to do something that could cushion the fall,” Frohnmayer said in an interview with The Oregonian. “We will fall if we don’t do something dramatic.”

It’s not a pretty picture in Oregon. According to Frohnmayer’s report:

State per capita spending on the Oregon University System has declined 44 percent in the past 15 years while spending for prisons has climbed by 50 percent, his report says. What’s more, state support comes with stifling regulatory restrictions, writes Frohnmayer. It is allocated over 6,300 budget lines that restrict everything from how much universities can charge for tuition to how they buy real estate or construct buildings.

Washington state’s funding of higher education has been better than Oregon’s. According to information from the state Office of Financial Management, Washington ranked 17th in the nation, spending $794 per capita in higher education dollars, $100 more than the U.S. average. But this budget year is looking like one for the record books.

Meanwhile, in protests reminiscent of the 1960s, California students are marching in the streets, protesting a 32 percent hike in tuition in the University of California system.

The full Board of Regents is expected to approve a fee hike of $2,500, or 32%, in two steps by next fall. That would bring the basic UC education fees to about $10,300, plus about another $1,000 for campus-based charges, for a total that would be about triple the UC cost a decade ago. Room, board and books can add another $16,000.

— Rita Hibbard

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