US budget cuts: good for colleges?

The Washington budget ax is chopping into higher education from two directions by reducing: * Scholarship and loan money available to students.

* Federal support for research programs.

For the most part, academia's response has been to warn of dire consequences if education isn't given special immunity from spending cuts. At the same time, universities such as Texas A & M, Indiana, and the University of Missouri have launched special projects to find private sources to replace disappearing federal money.

But for Rice University President Norman Hackerman, himself an eminent research chemist, budget cuts may bring an important step forward for ''sidetracked'' American education. Cutting federal support, Dr. Hackerman explains, will benefit students, university researchers, and the nation's universities ''if it enables them to cope for themselves a little better.''

Like other university administrators, Hackerman encourages his faculty to do all they can to find new sources of cash - a search perhaps made easier because Rice University is surrounded by the booming city of Houston. He accepts that major research efforts such as keeping an oceanographic fleet afloat, exploring the polar regions, and expanding radio astronomy research must continue to be federal responsibilities because of their size and national importance.

But Hackerman insists that education should accept its fair share of ''this long overdue national belt-tightening.''

He says there's room for cuts in spending on education largely because the 1960s led to ''the false proposition that the more people who had degrees, the better off the country would be.'' The result: ''This gave us a larger number of people exposed, but not a larger number of people educated.''

Hackerman expects savings and educational benefits from cutting frills that he says don't belong in a university education and outgrowing the belief that everyone needs a degree in order to become a useful citizen.

In the '60s, he says, ''When we had a whole lot of money, we didn't worry about priorities.'' He sees today's economic problems bringing ''a shake-out period'' and forcing serious thinking about priorities.

''Now that we have real economic pressure on us, maybe we will concern ourselves and come to a solution,'' Hackerman says, ''a deliberate and reasoned solution rather than the inadvertant conclusions we came to, when if we didn't solve a problem one way one day, we could always get a patch of a million dollars and try another way.'' The changed climate, he adds, ''doesn't sound bad to me. It's hard, but it's not necessarily bad.''

Still, he admits, ''No doubt individuals will be hurt, not only on the student side but also on scholarly side. Individuals who have been used to being supported, will not be.'' But, based on his own struggle for an education, Hackerman remains confident that ''those who are really bound and determined to become scientists and engineers, will do so. So we will maybe turn out fewer of them, but they will certainly be the most highly motivated.''

By cutting back on ''some of the less substantive things,'' Hackerman says universities will produce ''a better educated group of individuals than we had in the much freer days of the '60s.''

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