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Higher-education leaders seek share of stimulus fund

By Valerie Strauss Washington Post

WASHINGTON – More than 40 higher-education leaders from across the country asked Congress today to commit 5 percent of any economic stimulus program to the nation’s colleges and universities.

The educators, including University of Virginia President John Casteen III and Chancellor William E. Kirwan of the University System of Maryland, published an open letter in newspapers warning that state budget cuts have harmed the public educational enterprise that is at the heart of the nation’s long-term security.

“For the first time in our history, the cohort of Americans ages 25 to 34 is less well educated than the older cohorts that preceded it,” it says. “We cannot accept such dangerous signs that our future prosperity and security will be weaker than our past.”

President-elect Barack Obama has called for a massive package of government spending to jump-start the economy, and congressional Democrats are hoping to have one ready for him to sign when he takes office Jan. 20.

The open letter is likely to be well-received in the House, where the Appropriations Committee is taking a leading role in writing the legislation. Its chairman, Rep. David R. Obey, D-Wis., has long advocated increased resources for higher education.

Congressional sources said that some of the stimulus package likely will be directed to higher education, although the amount might not reach 5 percent.

Among those who signed the open letter are the leaders of state university systems in Florida, New York, Texas and Wisconsin. Others include University of California at Berkeley Chancellor Robert J. Birgeneau and the heads of several national higher-education associations.

The letter says that an investment of between $40 million and $45 million will help the country remain economically competitive.

Most of the money would go to public institutions, which educate 80 percent of all college students, although private schools could qualify.

The effort was spearheaded by Vartan Gregorian, president of the Carnegie Corporation of New York, an educational foundation. He said he began it last summer before the economic crisis worsened the finances of public universities, which at one time received most of their funding from states. Today, he said, such schools as U-Md. and the University of Michigan receive less than 14 percent of their funding from their respective states.

Gregorian said that 31 states are cutting their budgets for fiscal 2009. “Where do they cut?” he asked. “Naturally, libraries and education. In a sense, what was once billed as an investment in the future is seen as only an expenditure.”

The open letter, published in paid advertisements in the Washington Post and the New York Times, recommends that money be allocated to states based on population and administered by governors.

It also urges Congress to make federal funds available on the condition that states not use them “as an excuse to reduce budgetary commitments to universities.”

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