State colleges face calls for radical reform

Budget crunch prompts calls for changes from privatization to student vouchers.

Who should pay for higher education - states, or students and their families?

It's a question that's being raised anew for millions of Americans as governors, legislators, and college administrators confront the worst state budget crunch since World War II.

Many universities are trying the usual tricks to save money: raising tuition, putting off replacing the campus boiler, cutting degree programs. But this time the squeeze on higher education is severe enough that some states and universities are considering far more fundamental reforms.

For example:

• In Texas, momentum is building for deregulating tuition in exchange for lower appropriations. In the proposal, students from families making less than $41,000 a year would automatically qualify for free tuition at a state school.

• In Wisconsin and South Carolina, colleges have floated their own quasi-privatization proposals. If they're going to be cut off from so much funding, they say, they should at least have the freedom to govern themselves.

• In Massachusetts, Gov. Mitt Romney (R) recently proposed a sweeping university restructuring. His plan would consolidate several colleges, spin off the University of Massachusetts' Amherst campus as the system's flagship school, and set up a regional system in which each UMass campus would work closely with community colleges and employers. Three colleges would be essentially privatized, Tuition at all would rise significantly. In a politically tinged twist, the plan would also eliminate the office of UMass president, now held by a former Democratic politician with close ties in the legislature.

• In Colorado, legislators are proposing a voucher system for the state's colleges and universities. Instead of appropriating money to the schools, the state would give each undergraduate $4,000 a year to spend at the public institution they choose. While not directly linked to Colorado's dire fiscal situation, the plan has gained favor among university officials because of its potential to free the schools from tuition-hiking restrictions.

"It's all boiling down to a single question - how public is public education going to be?" says Travis Reindl, director of state policy analysis for the Association of State Colleges and Universities. "Higher education as an enterprise is going to change as a result of this [budget squeeze] there's no doubt."

Power over tuition

Ultimately, many of the proposals are about tuition - and who gets to set it. Universities often lack the power to impose tuition hikes, a system many officials hope to change. Kevin Hegarty, vice president of the University of Texas at Austin, favors tuition deregulation, proposed by the university system's chancellor. Tuition has been rising even without deregulation, but Mr. Hegarty would like to see the board of regents responsible for those hikes, not lawmakers.

"We hope we can surgically cut out nonessential parts and preserve the core of what this institution is about," he says, "but it's going to be a challenge."

Colorado's idea of higher-education vouchers is even more unusual. Backers hope it will encourage more students to attend college, says Joan Ringel, a spokeswoman for the Colorado Commission on Higher Education. The state has the nation's third highest high school dropout rate, she says. "If 180,000 students say to legislatures, 'Don't cut my stipend,' they may have more clout than having 28 faceless college presidents say that."

It's difficult know at this point how many of these proposals will be enacted. The one in Colorado has fairly broad-based support, as does the one in Texas. The Massachusetts proposal has the governor and UMass President William Bulger at odds in what seems to be an all-out battle. Wisconsin's governor has refused even to consider the university's request for privatization.

Student opportunity at risk?

But given the dire budgetary straits, some experts say creative proposals are needed.

Patrick Callan, president of the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education, laments the tendency to pass costs on to students and families, when many of them are struggling as well. With far more kids graduating from high school in many states, "the consequences of not being creative might actually be to reduce educational opportunity," he says. "Every generation since World War II has left people better educated, and we could roll that back."

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