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Let your state legislators know how important higher education is to you, your community and the economy. If you live in Ohio, contact information can be found at www.legislature.state.oh.us, where you can search by a legislator's name or your district or ZIP code.

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A Degree of Difficulty

By Mary Alice Casey and Joan Slattery Wall

Ohio University's president called the recently announced level of state funding for public colleges and universities disappointing and unrealistic. It would not even cover inflation, he said.

Voters uttered hardly a complaint. Nor did many legislators. There was, however, at least one exception.

"My great fear is that higher education will not fare very well in appropriations this biennium, nor in the next biennium, nor in the one after that.

"Why? Because higher education is misunderstood and under-appreciated by legislators and the public and because it is poorly equipped to compete in Columbus for scarce tax resources. The situation is very serious. Fortunately, it need not be chronic.

"What is needed is political action -- lobbying in the broadest sense -- on behalf of higher education in Columbus and all across Ohio."

Sound familiar? Of course it does.

Ohio University's more than 79,000 alumni who live in Ohio have heard such pronouncements the past few months during state budget debates; other alumni around the country are seeing similar situations as at least 30 states cut funding for higher education and institutions in 41 raised tuition, a couple as high as 25 percent.

Ironically, that outspoken legislator's urgent appeal wasn't made this year. It was voiced in 1973. Then-state Rep. Don Pease, BSJ '53 and MA '55, a legislative expert on education, laid out his concerns and those of President Claude Sowle in Ohio University Alumnus Magazine, a predecessor of Ohio Today.

Nearly 30 years later, the same calls reverberate.

  • Ohio ranks 41st nationally in the amount of state support per pupil received by public colleges and universities, reports the Ohio Board of Regents.
  • The national 2001-02 average undergraduate in-state tuition and fees for public universities was $3,754; Ohio's average was $5,099, according to the College Board.
  • Just four years ago, students covered 48 percent of the cost of running Ohio University while the state provided 44 percent and other income totaled 8 percent. This academic year, students are paying 53 percent of the cost, the state share is 37 percent and other income generates 10 percent.

Ohio is not alone. "Losing Ground," a study released in May by the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education, concluded that while state support for public colleges and universities has increased nationwide, the rise has not kept pace with higher education costs. It also found that students are assuming larger shares of those costs through tuition increases, and that they're more likely than ever to finance tuition by borrowing.

"Our conclusion regarding the affordability of a college or university education is this: Americans are losing ground," say the study's authors.

Certainly the family of Ohio University freshman John Innis, an Athens resident studying photography, believes this is the case. John obtained a federal loan of $862 per quarter for tuition and books; his parents, Darleen Innis, MS '00, and Christopher Innis, BA '79, are supplementing that with a $1,550-per-quarter federal loan of their own.

"Our philosophy," Darleen Innis says, "is we would do what we had to do financially to keep John in school."

The dilemma

Ohio's higher education struggle involves more than simply increasing state funding for public colleges and universities. It is a cog in a cycle that defies progress: Residents who are undereducated qualify primarily for low-paying jobs; these jobs, which are more abundant than those requiring more education, produce too few tax dollars; scarce tax revenues provide inadequate state support for higher education; insufficient state subsidies result in high tuition costs; and steep tuition puts higher education out of reach for many residents. The cycle repeats.

"We're not spending enough on education, and it's just as obvious with K-12 as it is with higher education," says Ohio University President Robert Glidden. "There's a major public policy issue here that has to be faced at both the state and federal levels."

Aggravating the situation is the fact that a national recession has strained the early years of every decade since 1960. In Ohio, the current recession's effect has been dramatic on virtually all state entities, although higher education has fared worse than many: While it accounts for roughly 12 percent of the state budget, it absorbed 54 percent of the cuts necessary to balance the books for fiscal 2002, which ended June 30. State funding to Ohio's 13 public universities is down 6 percent this year, and no one is guaranteeing more cuts won't materialize before the fiscal year is out.

State Sen. Eric Fingerhut, D-Cleveland, is a vocal proponent of higher education in the Legislature. However, his calls that more money be targeted at universities' research endeavors in order to break the cycle have met with the harsh reality of bigger bills for such budget items as Medicaid and prisons. Meanwhile, a 10-year court battle over primary and secondary school funding has largely spared K-12 from cuts, meaning reductions elsewhere have been more drastic.

One problem, Fingerhut says, is that too few of his colleagues acknowledge a strong correlation between higher education and the economy. "We don't like to spend money on a scholar or on a research project," he says, "because we don't see that there might be an idea coming out of it that could be the next Fortune 500 business."

Such investments are crucial if Ohio is to regain its manufacturing era prominence, says Chancellor Rodney Chu of the Ohio Board of Regents, which advocates for higher education institutions and helps determine their state allocations.

"What higher education provides is particularly critical as we've entered the 21st-century knowledge economy," Chu says. "A knowledge economy really depends on human capital, and human capital is developed by the education system."

At the heart of every knowledge-economy hotbed, Chu says, are research-strong universities. He points to Stanford and the University of California at Berkeley in the Silicon Valley, and Duke, the University of North Carolina and North Carolina State in Greater Raleigh's Research Triangle Park.

Those states have been more aggressive in dealing with the shift from a manufacturing to a knowledge economy. Fingerhut points out that while some states, including nearby Michigan, have been investing in fiberoptic networks and high-speed Internet connections, Ohio has been widening interstates.

"The result is that they are poised for growth in a way that we are not," he says. "And so the question for Ohio is, 'Do we finally cross that bridge ... and begin to invest in the economies of the future, or do we remain stagnant and continue a slow -- and that's why it's not always perceptible -- but a slow and steady decline relative to our neighbors?'"

Ohio's failure to gain ground in the new economy has hit family budgets hard. The previously strong per capita income of Ohioans fell to the national average in 1970 and has been lagging ever since. In 2000, it was $27,914; the national average was $29,451.

Ohio Board of Regents Chair Jeanette Grasselli Brown, BS '50 and HON '78, says Ohio's relatively low unemployment rate of less than 6 percent masks the problem.

"Our jobless situation in Ohio still is not that bad," she says. "The problem is that we don't have very many high-paying jobs."

And in the long run, the only way to reverse that, Grasselli Brown adds, is through education. Yet degree attainment is another weakness in Ohio, which ranks 39th in the nation in this attribute. The 2000 Census showed 21 percent of Ohioans have bachelor's degrees compared to the national average of 24.4 percent.

That translates into lost earning power and, for the state, lower tax revenues. According to a Census Bureau study, people with only a high school diploma earn an average of $1.2 million during their careers compared to $2.1 million for those with a bachelor's degree and more for those with advanced degrees.

"There's a direct and dramatic link between the education level of citizens and the economic prosperity of a city, a region or a state," Grasselli Brown says. "There's a quality of life in Ohio that we should be shocked about. Prisons, Medicaid, general public health -- which we spend millions on as a state -- all of these problems can be solved with higher education."

The effects

Ohio University lost $9.2 million in mid-year cuts that cost higher education institutions $120 million statewide in fiscal 2002. By that time, public colleges and universities already had sustained a $50 million reduction from what had been budgeted in fiscal 2001. In the current 2003 fiscal year, state cuts were virtually the same as those of last fiscal year.

Coping with budget cuts in fiscal 2002 meant using most of the University's central reserves, altering schedules to close buildings early, delaying or canceling expenditures, and implementing cuts to all budget units. University officials decided against a mid-year tuition increase, implemented by eight of 13 public universities in Ohio, saying such a hike would break faith with current students.

"It is hard for students to handle a mid-year increase," says Gary Schumacher, who as interim provost guided discussions on cuts. "In principle, we did the right thing."

To weather the current fiscal year, the University's Board of Trustees approved tuition increases of nearly 10 percent for continuing students (to $6,036 annually) and almost 14 percent for new students (to $6,336). The $300 difference will help fund initiatives to increase the number of faculty and improve undergraduates' core curriculum. In addition, the workforce was reduced by more than 50 positions through attrition, and all departments took a cut of 1 percent. Later, varying cuts of 1.6 to 3.2 percent were made in ways that protected academics and essential services to students.

Glidden says as difficult as the funding dilemma has been, the effect on Ohio University has been lessened by decades of strong fiscal management.

"What concerns me even more than what we've done is what's going to come," he says. "The same decisions that we made this last year we're going to have to make again, and they're going to be even harder."

On the positive side, he says, it forced an examination of priorities that may in the end produce a stronger institution.

"The first and foremost mission is doing a good job of teaching our students," Glidden says. "Very close to that is our function as a research institution. And third has to be the service function. We've spent a lot of money, a lot of energy, a lot of time on economic development for southeastern Ohio, and I believe that still is important. But if we have to make cuts, we're going to have to cut there before we cut the quality of undergraduate education. And in fact, we're trying to enhance the quality of undergraduate education at the same time all this is going on."

Alyssa Galford, an organizational communications major and Student Senate member who graduated in June, says the University softened the state budget cuts' effect on students.

"I think it was subtle," she says. "They did it in a way that affected students as little as possible."

Galford argues that the state can't keep cutting college and university budgets without detracting from the quality of education, yet students can't be expected to make up the difference. She was so riled that, as an Ohio Council of Student Governments member, she joined students from across Ohio who rallied at the Statehouse against state cuts and tuition increases.

"People are frustrated because they chose to go to a public school, and one of the reasons was that it was affordable," she says. "But you shouldn't have to worry about working 30 hours a week to afford school, your house, your food, your bills."

Some students delay paying for their education until after graduation. Of Ohio University undergraduates who earned diplomas in 2000, financial aid officials report, 69 percent borrowed under federal programs. They had average loans of $14,832. The numbers have increased. A year earlier, the comparative statistics were 59 percent and $13,996; for 1998, they were 58 percent and $13,850. And those figures don't take into account borrowing from state and private sources.

Freshman John Innis' agreement to live at home instead of on campus this year has helped the family budget. But if he had attended another state university, and even received a scholarship, the family could not have afforded room and board. Still, John's parents feel it's imperative that he pursue a college degree regardless of the rising costs.

"I can see from my perspective of being a caseworker for 21 years what can happen to people who don't have a college degree," Darleen Innis notes. "We want John to ... have a good home, have reliable transportation and enjoy some of the finer things in life and not have to worry about whether his job is going to end and whether he will be qualified for another one doing something else."

The options

Reversing higher education's slide in Ohio is not for the faint of heart. Proposals range from simply encouraging alumni to contact state legislators to the formidable task of revamping Ohio's 15-category formula for distributing funds to colleges and universities.

"There is a huge chasm that we need to get across to even become average compared to other states," says Chu of the Board of Regents. "We're not going to do that with baby steps."

Universities are doing what they can on their own to cross the chasm. In its Bicentennial Campaign, for example, Ohio University is seeking $200 million-plus by 2004 for scholarships, faculty enhancements, innovative programs, technological advancements and campus facilities. One focus is an effort to establish endowed chairs to encourage the brightest minds to join the University.

"Imagine what would happen if the state did 25 endowed chairs every year until we got to a level of, say, 100 or 200 of them in the state. Think of the people it would bring to the state and what it would do to the economy," Glidden says.

Ohio University also is among many institutions taking technology from the research stage to the market through ventures like the Innovation Center business incubator.

And Glidden and the state's other public university presidents have hit the pavement in a more active level of advocacy as members of the Inter-University Council.

"We have swung into action with letters and telephone calls to appropriate legislators at critical times," says Glidden, who chaired the council in 2001-02. "We try to function in a way that is informative to the Legislature."

The council also formed a task force to suggest ways to better use alumni as higher education proponents. Recommendations are expected this month.

On a state government level, efforts to support higher education have included Gov. Bob Taft's Third Frontier Project, a $1.6 billion proposal to expand high-tech research and promote new companies. The money includes $500 million for technology and biomedical research; $500 million to upgrade research facilities; $100 million to improve technology at existing companies; and a $500 million bond issue, set for a statewide ballot in 2003, to recruit top researchers to universities and bring products to market.

In this year's gubernatorial race, Taft is touting the project as an example of his support for higher education; his challenger, Tim Hagan, promises to increase higher education funding, reduce tuition and improve the links between university research, venture capital and the marketplace.

When it comes to solving higher education's funding woes, there is no shortage of ideas. Suggestions range from creating a voucher system that gives money directly to students to providing subsidies for master's students only to Ohioans and not out-of-state or international students.

Meanwhile, the Higher Education Funding Commission, created by law in 1995 to review Ohio's funding of public colleges and universities, is looking at such strategies as linking tuition caps and a guaranteed level of state support as well as creating forgivable loans for students pursuing high-demand careers. The commission was to make its recommendations before the Regents' budget proposals for the next biennium were due to the state in September.

Whatever the solution, education officials and politicians will not succeed alone. The public must be involved in breaking the cycle that has lasted many decades.

"I don't think we have progressed very far in terms of citizen awareness and citizen involvement. We've had good years and bad years for funding of higher education, essentially depending on who happened to be governor at any particular time. But I'd say there's not been a substantial change over the years in getting the public to understand and put pressure on their own legislators."

Sound familiar? Those words were spoken just this summer by Don Pease, who served 40 years as a state representative, state senator and U.S. representative.

"Sooner or later, and this gets back to the point I made in 1973, the people of Ohio have to decide that they want to have first-class public services, first-class grade schools, first-class universities and colleges. Correcting things requires more money, requires higher taxes," Pease said. "Until the public sees the need for higher spending and smarter spending and is willing to support that at the voting booth, it's not going to happen. There's still a job to do educating and convincing the average Ohio citizen."

Mary Alice Casey is editor of Ohio Today; Joan Slattery Wall is assistant editor.

Editor's note: Ohioans lost a lifelong supporter of education when Don Pease passed away in July, about a week after sharing his views with Ohio Today.

 

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