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Strategic Budget Advisory Committee (SBAC)
Strategic Budget Advisory Committee

Budget Cuts Take Toll on Education

Budget cuts have hit public colleges hard, even as the demand for a well-educated workforce soars.

August 19, 2009

By Kim Clark - US News & World Report

San Francisco—Every chair was taken. Yet more students jammed into the classroom for the first summer session class of City College of San Francisco's Microcomputer Applications for Business 101. By the time the class started, at least 12 extra people were standing in the aisles and clustered in the doorway. Instructor Hugo Aparicio shouted to the growing crowd that there were only enough computers to accommodate 28 students. Normally, with so many eager learners, CCSF would hire an instructor to teach another section of the class. But the state's $26 billion-plus deficit means there's no money for extra teachers. So Aparicio announced that only the first 28 students who registered for the course could stay. One young woman began to weep, explaining that this course was the last one she needed to graduate. Sophomore Inga Jargal also pleaded. She was having trouble finding any class to fill up her schedule: If she couldn't enroll in another one, she might lose her financial aid and campus job in the registrar's office. It was no use. There simply wasn't room. So, in a scene that is being repeated increasingly in California and other recession-socked states, several otherwise qualified students were sent out into the dark, blustery evening.

"I am worried," says Jargal. "I need an education for my future and my son's future," says the 26-year-old single mom.

The recession, state budget cuts, and hidebound bureaucracies are endangering some of the most important foundations of the American dream—the low-cost, high-quality public colleges created to provide anyone with smarts and diligence the training needed to succeed.

True, a few public higher ed leaders are using the financial downturn as a catalyst to permanently lower costs and increase the graduation rate above today's unimpressive 55 percent. They are reducing waste, streamlining, and modernizing courses.

But some influential analysts say too many colleges are reacting in shortsighted ways that will undermine the institutions themselves, as well as the opportunities for socioeconomic mobility that are at the core of American society. Just when public colleges are being swamped by applicants eager for low-cost classes and the nation needs new ideas to pull the economy out of recession, many schools are shutting classroom doors, raising tuition, crowding courses, canceling extracurriculars, and hobbling research.

"This is an opportunity," says William Bowen, a former Princeton University president who has written several books examining inequities and quality problems in higher education. "Some sensible pruning is occurring. Some good could come out of this." But, he worries, colleges are not using the recession as a spur for the kinds of fundamental changes needed to give more Americans better training.

The financial troubles of community colleges and state universities are far more important than the layoffs at elite schools such as Harvard and Yale that have grabbed headlines. Such storied privates educate perhaps 2 percent of America's 18.3 million college students. Public colleges teach 74 percent.

The Last Straw. The immediate crisis was sparked by an estimated 5 percent—about $4 billion—drop in the amount of money state governments apportioned to higher education for the fiscal year that started July 1. Federal stimulus money can close only part of that gap this year.

A drop of a few billion dollars out of the $79 billion or so that states had spent on higher education in 2008 might not sound severe, but for many colleges, this was a last straw. Even during the boom years, most states weren't increasing college budgets to match rising enrollments. The average public research university got almost $8,350 per student from taxpayers in 2002. By 2006, that had dropped below $7,100, according to the Delta Project on Postsecondary Education Costs, Productivity, and Accountability.

Now, public colleges are receiving even less per student. In hard-hit states such as California, Nevada, and Oregon, where colleges have had to slash their budgets by double-digit percentages in the past few months, educational and political leaders say they don't have the time or money to do anything but turn away more students. In California, where tax revenues for higher education are expected to plunge by about $2 billion, the flagship University of California system reduced its incoming freshman class this year by 2,300 and will probably have to reduce it by thousands more in 2010. The schools that are supposed to take the UC overflow, the California State University system, cut enrollment by about 4,000 students this year and are likely to cut 10 times as many next year. The CSU overflow students, along with thousands of unemployed workers hoping for retraining, have been mobbing community colleges. California community college leaders say they simply can't accommodate the influx with a state budget reduction of more than $340 million. They fear they could end up turning away as many as 250,000 students in the coming months.

That's effectively trapping thousands of Californians, like 20-year-old Sarah Hendrickson, into unemployment or low-paying, dead-end jobs. Hendrickson, who is wrapping up her associate's degree at a community college in San Luis Obispo, says she broke down in tears when her adviser told her she couldn't transfer into the overcrowded local state university for at least another year. "I am kind of stuck in all aspects of my life," she says.

California is the most extreme case, but many other states are closing classroom doors by raising tuition or cutting aid. In Florida, where the higher education budget this year is $153 million, or 4 percent, lower than last year's, many public universities will hike tuition by 15 percent. A year at Stony Brook University in New York, where state legislators have required public colleges to send some of their tuition money to the state's general fund to reduce the deficit, will cost students at least $1,000 more this year. The state of Washington, which has reduced its higher education budget by $168 million, or 10.6 percent, will raise tuition at public universities by about 14 percent this year. Washington's governor, Christine Gregoire, says that raising tuition was the least bad of all the options to make up a $9 billion shortfall over the next two years.

Although the federal government has increased the number and size of the need-based Pell grants and made it easier to take out and repay federally backed loans, many states, such as Florida and West Virginia, are reining in their financial aid programs. The net result is that the true cost of college for many students is rising at a time when they have less money.

Jon Shure, a tax expert at the Washington-based Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, says state officials and taxpayers used to "subsidize students because that was in the best interests of society. Now the balance is shifting to where students pay more and taxpayers less." That will mean some low-income students who could benefit from college will either be priced out or will hobble themselves with education debt, he says.

The recession is making classrooms harder to get into, more expensive—and, possibly, less instructive. Many colleges are saving money by packing more students into fewer courses. Arizona public universities, for example, have laid off thousands of employees and canceled scores of classes and programs in the past year. "You definitely learn less," University of Arizona junior Kevin Ferguson says of his bigger classes. "You can't interact with the professor when you are contending with 200 to 300 other students." Instructors say increased class sizes mean they work many more unpaid hours and have much less time to do, for example, thoughtful grading of papers, let alone research. Instructors' time shortages are being worsened by many colleges' requirements that staffers take unpaid furlough days.

Even seemingly small cuts might threaten the quality of education. The Kentucky community college system has decided not to offer tenure to new hires, prompting outcries that the system will lose the best candidates, who prefer colleges that offer more job security. Florida State University pulled the phones out of English and history professors' offices, saving more than $12,000 a year but sparking complaints that it will be harder for students to reach professors.

No band aid. The cuts also mean fewer choices and opportunities for students. Many colleges are deciding that they can no longer fund less popular courses. Idaho State University, like many other schools, has eliminated some low-enrollment courses such as French, German, Russian, Arabic, and Chinese. Many other schools have eliminated expensive science classes. The University of Nevada-Las Vegas—fictional hometown of television's CSI—has decided to phase out its forensic science program. Others are targeting the arts: Washington State University is disbanding its theater program. The University of West Georgia has canceled some music courses. "I don't believe I've ever seen a more troubling situation" for college music students across the country, says Mark Camphouse, interim chair of George Mason University's music department.

Activities, too, are disappearing. Florida International University and Minnesota State University-Mankato eliminated bands. FIU also zeroed out the budget for its cheerleading squad. Many schools are canceling expensive and untelevised sports teams such as baseball, skiing, wrestling, and swimming. At least 10 schools, including Indiana State and Missouri Southern, have canceled their tennis teams so far this year.

Such classroom and activity cuts are drawing increasing criticism from students and faculty who point to what they consider to be continued wasteful extravagance. Florida Atlantic University laid off five computer science and engineering professors, but it is proceeding with construction on a new movie theater. (FAU officials say the construction is funded with donated and earmarked funds that couldn't be used for operations.)

North Carolina's legislature has ordered public universities to cut their budgets by about 10 percent but is still having taxpayers pick up almost $14 million worth of tuition for out-of-state students, including athletes. Amy Perko, executive director of the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics, says many other recession-strapped colleges are spending millions on coaches and stadiums in the hopes of recouping big bucks from television contracts or alumni donations. But NCAA research shows that's a loser's bet, Perko says. "In 2006, only 19 of the 119 programs in the most competitive division finished the year with positive net revenue," she noted. The average shortfalls of nearly $9 million were subsidized by students and taxpayers, she says.

Lead by example. The news isn't all dire. A few oil-rich states—such as Texas, Alaska, and North Dakota—are increasing their spending on higher education. And several hard-hit states, such as Michigan and Ohio, have managed so far to avoid drastic cuts at universities.

Many colleges are turning the cutbacks into an opportunity to shed luxuries that had become common during fat years. Just by reducing the number of support staff who travel with sports teams, ending the indiscriminate handing out of "participation awards" to student athletes, and canceling some social activities, the universities belonging to the Pac-10 sports conference figure they'll collectively save about $1 million. The University of Texas athletic department estimates it will save at least $300,000 by replacing its glossy media guide booklets with DVDs. Athletes around the country are now taking buses to many games, instead of chartered planes. During the winter, the State University of New York-Canton saved approximately $250,000 by turning thermostats down to 68 Monday through Thursday and a frosty 58 on Fridays, when there were no classes. East Carolina University saved $30,000 by switching from paper to electronic tuition bills. The University of Vermont cut its custodial budget by $400,000 in part by making professors empty their own trash bins.

Many university executives are attempting to reduce the impact on students and lead by example by absorbing some of the financial pain themselves. The leadership of the University of Tennessee voluntarily took a 5 percent pay cut and turned in the keys to university cars to save the campus $400,000. Arizona State University President Michael Crow donated his $60,000 bonus for 2008 to the university's financial aid office and took the same 15 unpaid furlough days as the rest of the executive staff in the first half of 2009.

A few educational visionaries are experimenting with radical course redesigns to save money and give more students a better shot at graduating. Robert Olin, dean of arts and sciences at the University of Alabama, has overseen the creation of a math lab that has revolutionized entry-level classes. No longer do students spend three or four hours a week listening to lectures, only to then do homework on their own. In the new classes, students get only 40 minutes of lecture a week but then do at least three hours of practice on specially programmed computers in the math lab, where there are lots of tutors to answer questions.

The new math courses cost the university about $82 per student—about two thirds of the cost of a traditional lecture class. But the pupils score higher on standardized end-of-course tests because they've had so much practice and individual attention, Olin says.

About 150 other schools, including the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, Arizona State, and the State University of New York system, are experimenting with similar redesigns of courses for everything from chemistry to Spanish, often with similar results. Cheaper, better classes are the only long-term solution to the growing demand for education and shrinking funding, says Carol Twigg, founder of the National Center for Academic Transformation.

The economy will some day rebound, of course. But those colleges that are just cutting courses or having instructors lecture in front of ever bigger classes will simply offer lower quality. They won't have solved the structural problems that have led to high costs and low graduation rates. "Thinking differently," Twigg says, "is the only solution."

Emily Brandon contributed to this report.