Public colleges feel sting of budget cuts

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

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.

Whacking $15 million from the budget at Amherst cost 95 employees their jobs this year. It will also affect 136 athletes and 10 staffers who wave goodbye this fall to men's and women's water polo and gymnastics, men's track-and-field and tennis, and women's volleyball.

Other states are going much further. Tuition hikes on top of budget cuts are likely in Indiana, Mississippi, Montana, Tennessee, and Washington, the NCSL reports. In New Jersey, Gov. James McGreevey ordered a 5 percent cut in higher-education spending. At the same time, however, he warned university officials earlier this month that any school raising tuition more than 10 percent would be audited.

A decade ago, tuition increases were mostly swallowed by the public and legislators with little fuss. Now there are signs of resistance.

The Arizona Board of Regents approved a 3.9 percent in-state tuition hike – far below the 12 percent that university presidents wanted. In Wisconsin, the university regents in March battled legislators over budget cuts – threatening a freeze on undergraduate admissions if dollars were not restored.

Some universities are delivering truly enormous tuition increases.

Clemson University, South Carolina's flagship, announced a whopping 42 percent tuition increase. But protests led the school to rebate $600 to each student, cutting the increase to about 27 percent. At the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, tuitions will rise 21 percent.

Such increases will hit low- and moderate-income students harder this time because public colleges' tuition in the 1990s outpaced families' incomes during that period, eating up a larger share of family resources, Mr. Callan says.

Nationwide, in 2001-02, the average tuition charged by public four-year colleges and universities was $3,754, up 7 percent from $3,487 the year before. That's a big jump – on top of other big jumps.

Public schools' tuition and fees rose 40 percent during the 10-year period ending in 2000-01, compared with only 33 percent at private four-year colleges, the College Board reports.

The result is that even hard-working low-income students like Demetrio Johnson may decide not to attend – or end up deep in debt – because of higher tuition.

Even though his school's tuition hikes have been among the lowest of the Big Ten universities, the University of Illinois at Chicago raised tuition $500 last fall – and will boost it another $500 this coming fall.

Mr. Johnson, a 24-year-old honors student with a 4.5 grade point average, is putting himself through school; his family can't afford to help him. So, he works two jobs, allowing himself only the luxury of a phone in his tiny apartment in downtown Chicago. He's $10,000 in debt right now – and expects that to grow substantially by the time he graduates next year.

He's taken out the maximum in loans. He's won a number of scholarships and applied for many others. He's become a fixture around the college aid office. Still he's short of cash for summer school.

"Handling the financial pressure is tough," Johnson says. "But I'll get through it. I know I have to keep fighting."

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