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Public colleges feel sting of budget cuts

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / May 28, 2002

Summer is almost here, but you'd never know it from the chill blowing across American higher education as tuition rates spike dramatically higher.

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For a decade, public colleges and universities have reaped the harvest of fat state-budget surpluses – boosting facilities, faculty, and programs. Some schools even reduced tuition. But now that largess is coming to an abrupt halt as states with pinched pocketbooks once again look to cut higher education.

It's a boom-bust cycle that may seem familiar after the cuts of the early 1990s.

This time, however, the flood of tuition increases will disproportionately hammer low- and moderate-income students and their families. And the prospect of even heavier debt may drive away the very people who have been strongly encouraged over the past decade to set their sights on a college education as a means to a better job and income as adults.

"This is a potential crisis in the making," says Travis Reindl, director of state policy for the American Association of State Colleges and Universities, a lobby group. "We're setting ourselves up to disappoint those with the highest hopes of getting a college degree – first-generation, low-income students, and minority students who want to advance themselves."

Despite being relatively mild, the 2002 recession has produced huge deficits and put big, multiyear cuts to higher education in the pipeline. Mr. Reindl estimates that $4 billion will be cut from a total of $60 billion in higher-education spending nationwide for fiscal year 2003. And despite signs of economic recovery, this trend is not likely to abate until fiscal year 2005 at the earliest.

But unlike in the early 1990s, undergraduate enrollment is growing dramatically – even as state dollars are shrinking.

"It's a perfect storm," Reindl says. "If low-income students can't afford to attend, I don't know what consequences this holds for social cohesion for this country."

As many as 29 of the 43 states facing a budget crunch this year are looking to close the gap in part by slashing higher-education budgets, according to a report last month by the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL). Some, though, decry tuition hikes, suggesting that institutions could cut graduate or other programs instead.

"Here we have states coming off three or four of the best years of financial support for public higher education – in a strong position to absorb these cuts through other means – and instead many will be passing all this along to families and students," says Patrick Callan, president of the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education, an independent nonprofit group in San Jose, Calif.

Massachusetts faces a huge shortfall that some estimate at $1 billion, and some universities are approving tuition increases. Even so, effects in this state are milder than in most.

At one Massachusetts community college, faculty were reportedly told to get their sweaters out of mothballs because the school plans to turn the heat down this fall. Meanwhile, at the state's flagship campus, the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, seven of the 29 varsity teams are on the chopping block.