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Are State Budget Cuts Affecting the Quality of Public Higher Education?

Oct 19, 2009

As we approach the end of America's second year in economic recession, major cuts are being made in public service funding all over the country and education hasn't escaped the chopping block. New York is now the latest state to report major belt-tightening for public education: Governor David Paterson just announced a 4.5% cut to the state's education budget. These cuts have negatively impacted the quality of public higher education across the country.

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New York's latest budget cuts could have a drastic effect on both elementary and higher education. Local school districts may have to reach even deeper into their emergency funds, after already taking out $5.5 million in reserve funds to cover this year's budget deficit. Paterson's proposal also includes a $90 million mid-year funding cut to SUNY (the State University of New York), New York's large, multi-campus public university system. Students fear this will lead to another tuition hike only a year after schools like Buffalo State College saw big raises in tuition costs. Other ways that SUNY may handle the budget cuts will also negatively affect students. Fewer professors means larger class sizes, some classes may get cut altogether and financial aid resources may also be strained.

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A National Crisis

Community colleges and public universities nationwide face similar challenges. This summer, states cut an estimated $4 billion out of higher education spending for the current fiscal year, an approximately 5% overall reduction. States such as Nevada, Oregon and California were hit the hardest, cutting public university funding by double-digit percentages.

Schools must scramble to find ways to deal with these budgetary shortfalls. California's legendary UC (University of California) system has had to reduce its incoming class size, and expects to admit even fewer students in 2010. The CSU (California State University) system was expected to take the overflow, but has instead had to make similar cuts in enrollment. This has dumped huge numbers of students on community colleges, which are already strained with their own financial problems.

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Perhaps the cruelest twist in this situation is the fact that the economic crisis that's making it hard for schools to find funding is also driving more people back to school. As jobs have become scarce and people are struggling to find work, more and more people are turning to higher education. For some students, education is a way to receive formal job training or simply become more qualified. For others, long stretches of unemployment are being turned into opportunities to finally get that degree. And because private colleges are more financially inaccessible than ever, most students are turning to public universities and community colleges - the very same schools that, in states like California, are now forced to turn them away. And even the students who can still get into school are suffering from the budget cuts. Financial aid has become more scarce, so many students are taking on staggering debt at a time when they can least afford it.

Even more alarming is the reduced quality of public education. Many adjunct professors are being laid off and classes are getting consolidated, resulting in fewer course offerings and much larger class sizes. This means many students are being forced out of courses they need to complete in order to graduate, and the quality of classes is also going down. Professors overwhelmed with hundreds of students struggle to find time to create new coursework or offer thoughtful criticism with grading, and forget about meeting with them if you're having trouble with the material.

A drama class

Schools have also started to eliminate entire degree programs. Washington State University (WSU) has ended its theater program and the University of Nevada Las Vegas is cutting forensic science. Other schools are dropping low enrollment courses such as foreign language and music, and some are reducing expensive lab science classes. Un-televised activities such as band, skiing, swimming and tennis are also disappearing rapidly.

These cuts are especially frustrating in the face of wasteful spending by many schools. Florida Atlantic University (FAU) is taking criticism for continuing with the construction of a new movie theater just after laying off several professors. Other schools are pouring money into intercollegiate athletics, hoping that big spending on things like coaches and stadiums will be recouped by resultant funding increases in areas like alumni donations and TV contracts. Unfortunately, NCAA research suggests that this strategy has been unsuccessful in recent years, leading to even more budget shortfalls.

Students in a college computer lab

Quality Over Quantity: A Radical Solution?

Many universities are exploring creative ways to solve to the current budget crisis. Cuts are being made to luxury spending in many athletic departments: Schools are canceling some social events, eliminating 'participation awards' to student athletes, reducing the number of support staff traveling with the team and sending athletes to away games on buses instead of airplanes. Other schools are reducing operating costs by spending less on things like utilities and printing. Many schools are switching to paperless billing, and last winter SUNY-Canton saved $250,000 by lowering their thermostats.

Some colleges are also taking the opportunity to reevaluate their teaching methods. The University of Arizona recently introduced a new math lab that has transformed introductory math education. In the new course, students only get one lecture per week, but they must spend three or more hours doing homework in the math lab, which is staffed with many student tutors. This new math class only costs the school 2/3 of a traditional lecture course, but it has actually resulted in raising standardized test scores. Students are getting a lot more individual attention from tutors, whose time costs far less than the professors who lead lectures but can't devote as much one-on-one time to students.

About 150 other colleges are exploring similar course redesigns. These universities, which include Arizona State, SUNY and the University of Massachusetts Amherst, serve as important examples for schools across the country. Although budget cuts are affecting the quality of public higher education, they don't have to. Now is the time to streamline operating costs and reevaluate pedagogical standards that may be ineffective and out of date. Hopefully our public schools will emerge from this crisis to offer even higher standards of education.

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