Tight economy is squeezing public universities, students

Colleges raise tuition, limit enrollment to deal with financial crunch

March 18, 2002|By Stuart Silverstein | Stuart Silverstein,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Many public colleges and universities around the country are caught in financial crunches, prompting midyear tuition increases and belt-tightening measures such as enrollment limits and faculty cuts.

The financial problems stem from strains on state budgets because of the slow economy over the past year and a bulge in the number of youths reaching college age.

"This is the first time in the modern history of higher education that we've had enrollment pressure and a bad economy at the same time," said Patrick M. Callan, president of the nonprofit National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education in San Jose, Calif.

Among the consequences: The University of Wisconsin system stopped admitting new students March 8 and later froze hiring, amid a budget fight between regents and lawmakers.

The University of Massachusetts, Amherst announced March 11 that it will eliminate seven of its 29 sports teams. That follows an array of earlier cutbacks, including early-retirement initiatives to thin the ranks of professors.

For the current school year, a College Board survey found that tuition at public universities -- which serve more than three-quarters of the nation's estimated 15 million college students -- was up nearly 8 percent. That was the biggest jump since 1993, and a blow to students and families already hurt by the sluggish economy.

But at many campuses, even heftier increases are coming for next year, and some schools have resorted to midyear tuition increases.

At the University of Cincinnati, part of Ohio's state university system, tuition rose 8 percent in June. Then, after the school year started in the fall, two more boosts totaling an additional 6 percent were imposed, bringing the annual cost to $6,175.

"You have a sort of contract with students about what they expect to pay for the year," said Robert E. Richardson Jr., an electrical engineering major and the student body president at University of Cincinnati.

In the middle of a school year, Richardson said, "that shouldn't be dealt to us. We shouldn't have to take the financial burden for what the state didn't do" to finance higher education.

Richardson said he has heard from students who are reducing their course loads, working longer hours in their part-time jobs or getting bigger loans to offset the extra costs.

For students at hard-pressed schools, higher-education experts say, scholarship dollars are likely to be less plentiful. That would continue a long-running trend in which students rely increasingly on loans to finance their educations.

The coming school year also is expected to bring more crowded classrooms. That's worrisome for students such as Dylan Lee Lehrke, an international studies major at the University of Washington in Seattle.

"It's already really hard to get into classes and when you do get into them, they're really large," said Lehrke, 23. "Our faculty are already stretched really thin."

A bill awaiting the signature of Washington Gov. Gary Locke would reduce the state's higher-education funding by 5 percent, and would permit tuition for resident undergraduate students to be increased by as much as 16 percent.

To a lesser extent, private schools and their students also are feeling the financial pinch. Although some of the nation's most elite schools are cushioned by ample endowment funds, others with more modest resources are receiving fewer and smaller donations from financial supporters.

Historically well-funded schools might be able to survive a lean year or two without much damage, Callan said, but then they will face trouble as well: "We were getting more than our fair share, but all of a sudden, [the economy] turned on us like a vengeance."

Throughout the country, states increased funding for higher education for the current school year by just 4.6 percent, the smallest increase in five years, according to one study. Higher education spending now is under even more pressure as legislators seek to pare state budgets for the coming year, despite signs that the nation is pulling out of recession.

The hard times are hitting campuses now because swings in state revenue typically lag behind the performance of the overall economy.

State governments suffered their first revenue decline in nearly a decade during the second half of last year, according to the Nelson A. Rockefeller Institute of Government, the public policy research arm of the State University of New York.

For many state legislatures, higher education is an easier target for funding cuts than prisons, Medicare, welfare and elementary and secondary public education.

By slashing higher education, "You're not throwing kids out on the street. You're not starving people. You're not throwing them out of hospitals. You're perhaps degrading higher education, but that just doesn't have the same impact," said Nicholas W. Jenny, senior policy analyst with the Rockefeller Institute.

States such as Oregon, Idaho, Illinois and Missouri and North and South Carolina are considering, or have enacted, higher-education spending reductions or tuition increases -- or both.

Stuart Silverstein is a reporter for the Los Angeles Times, a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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