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So Goes the Nation

November 13, 2008

In what appears a harbinger of things to come for higher education, governors of two of the nation’s most populous states have rolled out plans that would dramatically reduce funding for colleges and universities -- again.

In the past two weeks, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger of California and Gov. David Paterson of New York have both proposed midyear budget cuts that college officials say will cripple already strained higher education systems.

At a news conference Wednesday, Paterson laid out a proposal that would cut $348 million from the State University of New York and the City University of New York. His plan came on the heels of Schwarzenegger’s proposal from earlier this month, which cut $132 million from public universities and $332.2 million from community colleges.

The blow from the budget cuts in New York would be softened, Paterson’s office suggested, by allowing SUNY and CUNY to raise tuition for just the second time in 13 years. The tuition hikes of $600 a year, which would be fully implemented in the 2009-10 academic year, would amount to increases of 14 percent and 15 percent at SUNY and CUNY, respectively.

The state would allow both systems to keep 10 percent of tuition revenues this spring, and 20 percent of the increase in 2009-10, generating $12.4 million for the current academic year. Allowing the universities to retain a portion of new tuition revenues marks a departure from tradition in New York, where the state has typically reduced general fund appropriations by an amount commensurate with any dollars gained by tuition hikes. But the state is still taking the lion’s share of the money, which it can then devote to purposes other than education. That doesn’t sit well with Shirley Strum Kenny, president of SUNY's Stony Brook campus.

“The notion that students should pay tuition to fill a void rather than to pay for their education -- that they in effect are being taxed that money rather than the money coming to the university for their education -- is, I think, not going to go down well,” Kenny said.

The SUNY Student Assembly issued a statement Wednesday in opposition to the tuition hike.

"New York State is in a tight spot, we understand that completely. But, the state cannot expect SUNY students and their families to bear more of the burden than anyone else,” Jacob Crawford, the assembly’s president, said in a statement. “While all agencies, including SUNY, are being cut, SUNY students are the only ones being asked to also pay more. The state's purse strings may be tighter than ever, but so are those of our students. Responsible spending paired with a rational tuition plan is the solution, not asking students for what is essentially an additional tax for state coffers."

The plan still requires the approval of New York’s Legislature, which will meet in a special session starting November 18. Lawmakers normally wouldn’t have considered the 2009-10 budget until January, but they are convening to consider midyear cuts and the 2009 cuts all at once in light of the state’s dire fiscal situation. As the center of the nation's financial sector, New York has been particularly hard hit by the current economic crisis.

The cuts in New York also include decreases for SUNY's and CUNY's community colleges, which will see average per-student aid drop by 10 percent, or $270.

New York’s proposed cuts come on top of $146 million in cuts already endured by the 64-campus SUNY system, and $50.6 million for the 23-campus CUNY system.

California State May Reduce Enrollment

Schwarzenegger’s proposal in California would cut $66.3 million from California State University, which already took a cut of $31.3 million earlier this year. The plan has prompted Chancellor Charlie Reed to propose increasing admissions standards across the 23-campus system in order to reduce enrollment by at least 10,000 students.

Currently, only six of California State’s campuses have competitive admissions standards beyond the minimum system-wide requirement that students have a 3.0 high school grade point average, according to officials. Reed’s proposal to change standards comes at a time when demand is peaking at California State, which has already seen a 20 percent spike in applications this year.

As for the University of California, Schwarzenegger’s plan would reduce state support by $65.5 million, on top of a $48 million cut approved by lawmakers in September. Gene Lucas, executive vice chancellor of the University of California at Santa Barbara, said the upcoming budget reductions continue a painful cycle in the state’s higher education system.

“I’ve been at the executive vice chancellor position for six, going on seven years, and I’ve had five years of budget cuts out of that and no year of recovery,” he said. “It hasn’t been all that much fun.”

The University of California will probably be forced to backtrack on last year’s decision to enroll an additional 5,000 students, Lucas said. University officials were faced with a politically perilous question last year: Hold enrollment steady and turn away qualified students, or increase enrollment and risk not getting any more funding for it. In the face of Schwarzenegger’s new plan, it now seems obvious that growing enrollment wasn’t the right move, Lucas said.

“We chose door number two and it wasn’t the right one, I think,” he said.

California’s community colleges are also facing cuts of $332.2 million, and the timing couldn’t be worse, according to Erik Skinner, vice chancellor for fiscal policy for the California Community Colleges system. It’s incredibly difficult for colleges that have already made hiring commitments to slam on the brakes at this point and rethink their budgets, he said.

“The state puts districts in an impossible situation when we try to take money midyear,” Skinner said.

Adjuncts Protest

Before plans for further cuts in New York were announced, higher education officials were already bracing for the worst. About three weeks ago, deans and department heads at CUNY's Queens College were called into an emergency meeting with the president and provost to discuss a series of unpalatable options. Andrew Beveridge left the meeting and began crafting plans to reduce course offerings and grow class sizes in the sociology department, which he chairs. That proposal was rebuked by adjunct faculty, whom Beveridge said were justified in their concerns about losing work.

“They’re going to get screwed,” he said. “It’s terrible.”

James Hoff, a member of an ad hoc group called CUNY Contingency Unite that represents adjunct faculty, said the group was protesting on campuses that appear poised to reduce course offerings.

“Losing one class is actually really devastating for some adjuncts,” he said. “At this point, it’s triage; we’re trying to save jobs.”

CUNY Chancellor Matthew Goldstein injected one-time money into the system to help minimize the impact on academic programs and support services, but those efforts don’t appear to be enough to stave off painful changes at this point, Hoff said.

“When Goldstein first made the cuts, he said they were not going to have this kind of effect, and instead they would deal with facilities, deal with library holdings,” Hoff said. “But as they always do when they have budget problems, the adjuncts are the first to go.”

Clemson Requires Furloughs

A number of other states are anticipating or undergoing midyear budget cuts, including South Carolina. In response to budget reductions, Clemson University announced this week that all employees will be required to take mandatory unpaid five-day furloughs. The plan is expected to generate $5 million, which will only partially address the $25 million reduction in state support Clemson has incurred over the course of three separate budget cuts this year.

Robin Denny, a spokeswoman for Clemson, said university officials are already concerned another budget cut may come before the end of this fiscal year.

“We’re looking at this as a one time only short-term fix,” she said. “The real work comes between now and July 1.”

The National Conference of State Legislators is currently conducting a 50-state survey to determine the level of midyear budget cuts across the country. Arturo Perez, fiscal analyst for the group, said higher education officials have been eager to get the results, hoping to compare their own hardships with those of their peers.

“Everybody wants to know ‘how bad is it out there? Are we the only ones in this situation?’ ” he said. “The short answer is no.”

 

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