November 15, 2009 in Opinion

Higher education worth preserving

Elson S. Floyd Special to The Spokesman-Review
 

Public institutions of higher education across the country are in a fiscal crisis. The financial downturn has highlighted the reality that leaders in higher education must redouble efforts and continue to make compelling cases for adequate state support. Higher education, as an industry, has experienced substantial and draconian budget reductions. Examples of such cuts abound nationwide.

In September, Idaho’s governor announced 6 percent midyear budget holdbacks for universities, colleges and community colleges. Nevada’s governor is proposing a 14 percent reduction in public higher education funds for the next fiscal year. In California, state support has been reduced by nearly 20 percent, resulting in employee furloughs, cuts in enrollment and major tuition increases.

Here, in the state of Washington, four-year institutions saw an overall 21 percent reduction in the current biennium. Once federal stimulus dollars were included and a 14 percent tuition increase added, the percentage drop was still more than 10 percent. That translates into a $54 million cut over the biennium for Washington State University. During an eight-year period that saw general state spending increase by nearly 38 percent, the state’s investment in higher education dropped by more than 7 percent.

Reductions of this magnitude have both immediate and long-term impacts. We will not recover quickly, but we must begin the process.

This problem is not focused on a single institution or set of institutions. It is pervasive and threatens our economic future.

Washington State University and the University of Washington combine to provide 35 percent of all undergraduate degrees awarded in the state and 92 percent of all the state’s doctoral degrees. Our Legislature and those around the nation are struggling with their obligation to provide adequate support for higher education.

The benefits of a college education are well documented:

•Lower crime rates.

•Higher individual tax base.

•More upward and career mobility.

•Greater job and financial security.

•General improvements in the quality of life.

Our colleges and universities serve as economic drivers for the state and nation. That is one of the major reasons why reinvestment in higher education is of paramount importance. Otherwise, the nation will lose a generation of students due to higher tuition costs and reduced student access. If states are to achieve the goals of access, affordability, economic vitality and improvement in the quality of life for their citizens, swift action must be taken.

Those of us in higher education must do more than lobby for additional funds. We must be held accountable for how those funds are used.

To re-establish the public’s confidence in and support for public higher education, the following steps are recommended during the current fiscal crisis and beyond:

•Coordinating and governing boards should no longer allow higher education institutions to provide programs and degrees outside of current missions unless expressly authorized. In other words, unplanned and unfinanced “mission creep” should stop.

•Institutions should maintain and seek to increase enrollment levels without eroding quality.

•Institutions need to align their academic programs and majors with state priorities. Furthermore, higher education institutions should base programs, services, and academic priorities on verifiable community needs.

•Each institution should closely examine its programs and focus attention and resources on those it can do best. Efficiency must be achieved and duplication avoided.

•Partnerships/cooperative agreements and collaborative efforts should be forged with local, state, federal and private entities to leverage and maximize resources.

•Legislatures should agree to stable and predictable funding through dedicated and identified funding sources.

•Assign tuition-setting authority to each institution’s board of regents in order to better align state appropriations with tuition rates.

Bold initiatives and fiscal discipline are required during these times. Without them, the excellence of our higher education system will be endangered, and we will have only ourselves to blame.

Elson S. Floyd is president of Washington State University.


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