State colleges get less taxpayer aid

Drop raises fears of `slide toward privatization'

October 16, 2005|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

Taxpayer support for public universities, measured per student, has plunged more precipitously since 2001 than at any time in two decades, and several university presidents are calling the decline a de facto privatization of the institutions that played a crucial role in the creation of the American middle class.

Graham Spanier, president of Pennsylvania State University, said this year that skyrocketing tuition was a result of what he called "public higher education's slow slide toward privatization."

Other educators have made similar assertions, some avoiding the term "privatization" but describing a crisis that they say is transforming public universities. At an academic forum last month, John D. Wiley, chancellor of the University of Wisconsin, Madison, said that during the years after World War II, America built the world's greatest system of public higher education.

"We're now in the process of dismantling all that," Wiley said.

The share of all public universities' revenues deriving from state and local taxes declined to 64 percent in 2004 from 74 percent in 1991. At many flagship universities, the percentages are far smaller. About 25 percent of the University of Illinois' budget comes from the state. Michigan finances about 18 percent of Ann Arbor's revenues. The taxpayer share of revenues at the University of Virginia is about 8 percent.

"At those levels, we have to ask what it means to be a public institution," said Katharine C. Lyall, an economist and president emeritus of the University of Wisconsin. "America is rapidly privatizing its public colleges and universities, whose mission used to be to serve the public good. But if private donors and corporations are providing much of a university's budget, then they will set the agenda, perhaps in ways the public likes and perhaps not. Public control is slipping away."

Not everyone agrees with the doomsday talk. Some experts who study university finance say the declines are only part of a familiar cycle in which legislatures cut the budgets of public universities more radically than other state agencies during a recession but restore financing when good times return, said Paul E. Lingenfelter, president of State Higher Education Executive Officers, a nonprofit association.

"Let's not panic and say that the public commitment to higher education has fundamentally changed," Lingenfelter said. "Let's just say that these cycles happen and get back to work to restore the funding."

Still, the future of hundreds of universities and colleges has become a subject of anxious debate nationwide. At stake are institutions that carry out much of the country's public-interest research and educate nearly 80 percent of all college students, and whose scientific and technological innovations have been crucial to America's economic dominance.

The average in-state tuition for students attending four-year public colleges increased 36 percent from 2000-2001 through 2004-2005, according to the College Board, while consumer prices rose about 11 percent.

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