President's ColumnMarch 2004: Vol. 83, No. 2

Higher education is feeling the pinch

Michael F. Adams
ationally, state-funded support for public higher education declined 2.1 percent last year. Congress is debating the reauthorization of the Higher Education Act. And stories about the cost of college appear in newspapers every week.

What all this means is that UGA is not alone in addressing the difficulties that come with declining state revenues; the silver lining around the cloud is that the budgetary difficulties in Georgia have not been as severe as in other states. In Massachusetts, state support dropped 19.3 percent last year. South Carolina’s governor has proposed cutting public service at Clemson by almost 50 percent. While tuition at Georgia’s four public research universities rose 15 percent last year—the largest increase in decades—tuition in Arizona rose 39 percent, in South Carolina 19 percent, and in Alabama 17 percent.

We have lost some $50 million from our base state budget in 2002, yet we are serving 4,185 more students and have generated 9.6 percent more credit hours than we did four years ago. We have 400 unfilled faculty lines, more than 230 of which are teaching positions.

While the Higher Education Act primarily addresses funding assistance for students in higher education—there is a bit of politics being played as well. There is a proposal in Congress to impose price controls on colleges and universities relative to annual cost of living indices. There have been similar proposals here in Georgia. The issue of the cost of college is an easy political target, but such proposals often ignore both the reality of colleges’ budgetary situations as well as the multiple benefits of higher education both to the individual and to the state.

Based on standard calculations of the increased earning power of college graduates, the most recent UGA graduating class will contribute more than $5.4 billion in additional earnings to the state of Georgia—a pretty good return on the state’s $422 million portion of UGA’s budget last year.

At UGA, we have lost some $50 million from our base state budget in 2002, yet we are serving 4,185 more students and have generated 9.6 percent more credit hours than we did four years ago. We have about 400 unfilled faculty lines, more than 230 of which are teaching positions, and 500 unfilled staff positions. We’ve done about as much with less as we can do, if we want to keep doing it well.

UGA has been ranked among the nation’s top 20 public universities by U.S. News & World Report for four consecutive years. The quality of the student body has increased steadily, and demand for admission in very high. UGA’s faculty are among this nation’s very best. But there is no such thing as cheap excellence. We cannot expect to maintain the quality of the past few years and meet the expectations of our students without a sufficient level of funding from the state.

I have no problem with accountability, and I welcome input about how UGA can operate more efficiently. But there are areas where efficiency for the sake of saving money can damage our mission. Class size is one area. Everyone agrees that lower faculty-student ratios are better for learning. Bigger classes, with fewer faculty, cost less and are more efficient in the narrowest sense of that world, but I am not willing to do that simply to save money.

There are other federal proposals that are troubling: one to have the Department of Education regulate the process of transfer credits; one to control the process of early admissions and legacy admissions; and another to create a federal board to investigate faculty members and their research findings.

In the words of Terry Hartle, chief of government affairs at the American Council on Education, “all of these things would significantly alter the relationship between the federal government and universities. They would give federal bureaucrats much more to say in the day-to-day operation of universities and would [encroach] into areas like curriculum, pricing and admissions. Needless to say, we think these would be bad steps.”

Higher education’s significance in 21st century America must not be overlooked. An educated workforce is essential to the knowledge economy UGA graduates will enter when they leave here. As the state continues to work through these difficult budgetary times, it is my hope that the value of the investment in higher education will be recognized.

Michael F. Adams

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