As Deficits Grow, States Try Innovative College Funding

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

MASSACHUSETTS' public universities and colleges, struggling with state budget cuts, may be in for a dramatic reorganization. An innovative plan, created by Massachusett' interim chief of public higher education, Chancellor Randolph Bromery, would group the state's 29-campus system into five regions to combine resources.

Within each region, schools would share libraries, faculty, and even courses via satellite and intercampus shuttle buses. By linking institutions together, more students would have access to a greater number of academic programs at lower costs, Mr. Bromery says.

``It doesn't take away any of the stature of the institutions within the region, it just increases cooperation, collaboration,'' Bromery says. The chancellor has begun implementing the plan this month, although he has yet to get the full support of the state's college presidents.

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Bromery's proposal is designed to ease pressure on public colleges and universities, hit hard by the state's ballooning $1.2 billion budget deficit. His plan is just one example of how public higher education is responding to funding cuts nationwide.

``What we're finding is that a lot of colleges are cutting,'' says Arthur Levine, chairman of the Institute for Educational Management at Harvard University.

Colleges experienced considerable enrollment growth during the early 1980s. Schools expanded and competed for the best resources and faculty. But as the decade waned, tuitions rose and the number of college-aged students declined, forcing schools to look for ways to downsize.

Compounding the problem, Northeastern schools have been hit hard by unforgiving state budget deficits. New Jersey, New Hampshire, Connecticut, and New York all have either considered or have already cut back on higher education.

Although experts say regionalization is not a new idea, no state public system has attempted anything close to Bromery's plan; many states have cut staff, canceled classes, and increased tuitions. Two states with limited resources, however, have come up with innovative ideas:

The residents of Macomb County, Michigan, lacking funds to to build a new university, decided to build a ``higher education mall'' instead. The new University Center, to be part of the two-year Macomb Community College, will offer bachelor degree programs from five four-year institutions. Macomb County residents passed a local tax to build the $12-million project, which will open next fall.

In Portland, Ore., education officials are considering forming a public/private confederation of schools instead of building a new university. Under the plan, the city's many private institutions would join with its few public institutions to offer a wide range of programs. Schools would jointly hire faculty and offer courses.

In Massachusetts, state public colleges and universities have been zonked by $120 million in cuts over the past three years, according the the Massachusetts Board of Regents of Higher Education. Two additional across-the-board cuts this year have shaved off another $50 million.

With such a dire outlook for higher education, critics question Bromery's dramatic reorganization. Some say the schools are too far apart for travel purposes or question the use of satellite video technology as a teaching method. Mr. Levine fears the plan will do more harm than good.

``The danger is that we'll cut some programs that should be on each campus,'' he says.

University of Massachusetts president Joseph Duffey agrees. He favors closing down a school, rather than implementing the regionalization plan.

``I don't see savings frankly [in this plan],'' Mr. Duffey says. He admits, however, that closing schools is a tough political issue, particularly in the districts of powerful state legislators.

Levine favors organizing a blue-ribbon task force to study the issue and draw up recommendations for the future of the entire public-education system.

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