Don't cut public higher education funds

February 19, 2003|By C. D. Mote Jr.

SINCE COMING to the University of Maryland 4 1/2 years ago, I have been impressed by the extraordinary commitment of the state's leaders to higher education.

On my first day on the job as president, I joined the Larson task force that renewed the state's public policy position on higher education. It led to state law codifying a mandate for quality higher education in 1999.

It was inspirational to be surrounded by so many leaders who saw clearly that the future of the state and its citizens depends on a higher education system that is competitive with the best. Substantial budget increases from 1999 to 2002 reflected this critical and urgent assessment of the state's economic, social and cultural futures.

Those wise investments came in good economic times, when the state also reduced taxes substantially and personal income tax fell by 10 percent.

Times have changed, and the campus budget has been slashed by a total of $41.5 million this fiscal year. That sum equals 11.5 percent of our state appropriation, and it reduced the state's fraction of our budget to 29 percent. These are permanent reductions that challenge the continuation of our program for fiscal year 2004 and yet, astonishingly, the General Assembly is considering cutting higher education substantially again. It is time to think carefully about the consequences of these cuts for the present and the future.

The current fiscal realities create a daunting problem. Revenues are down, and economic recovery is not apparent. The entire state is affected, and higher education institutions must share reasonably in the cuts. But citizens and legislators must also recognize the substantial loss to the people and future of the state that will result from cuts which drive the university down and backward. Is this good public policy?

The universities are the state's most efficient and productive economic engines. Every dollar invested at the University of Maryland turns over six times in new jobs, new business partnerships and new taxes paid. Expenditures by the College Park campus alone support 39,000 jobs or about 1.5 percent of the state's work force. Does it make any sense to slow this engine down when it is most needed to rev up?

And yet, according to an analysis of the budget by the legislative budget office, public universities have had to bear 30 percent of the reductions although they receive only 10 percent of the state's appropriation. The cuts are unwise and inequitable.

While the appropriations from fiscal year 1999 to fiscal year 2002 were generous, these increases brought the campus back from the budget reductions of the early 1990s. With inflation considered, the fiscal year 2002 appropriation almost returned us to funding levels of fiscal year 1990. In fact, the University of Maryland has never been funded at levels recommended by the state and started out this year more than $80 million short. That was before the cuts already taken.

Increasing tuition is one consequence of reduced state support, and not a good one. After World War II, public policy held that higher education was a public good. Educated people would get good jobs or start companies, pay taxes and help others along the way in a continuing cycle of prosperity. The G.I. Bill was a tangible result of this public policy principle. Much of the nation's prosperity and technological advancement can be credited to this principle.

Beginning in the mid-1970s, however, that view began to erode and was replaced by the notion that higher education is a personal benefit to the student, not a public good for society. Accordingly, the beneficiary should pay more and society less. The grip of that view tightened in the 1990's. At the same time the demand for quality higher education has constantly increased because we live in the knowledge economy. Higher education is mandatory, not discretionary, for most people.

Higher education is mandatory, not discretionary, in a state that wants to lead in the high technology economy.

In my four decades in higher education, I have never heard anyone argue for lower cost, lower quality education. Nobody, and no state, wants to cut back on quality. The outcome then is less state support and higher tuition, fewer scholarships and more loans.

This course is accelerated substantially by the current budget crisis but is not caused by it. Unless the state arrests this course by maintaining its support even in these difficult times, tuition will have to rise to meet the demand for quality. The people in need will suffer most and access will be affected. Is this good public policy?

The people of Maryland have shown that they want high-quality higher education accessible to all who are qualified. They are right. We cannot let the quality of our higher education system fall backward without speaking out on the critical role of state support. The future of the state - of our citizens and our children - is truly at stake.

C. D. Mote Jr. is president of the University of Maryland, College Park.

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