News: A Matter of Degrees

What matters is who can afford them

Jun 21, 2001 at 2:06 pm

Ohio's newest state budget promises to leave no child behind. Instead, it plans to wait until people become young adults — then let them trail in the dust.

A college education has long been an expectation for the rich, a goal for the middle class and a dream only recently achieved by some of Ohio's poor. The $45 billion state budget will do little to expand access to college.

Ordered by the Ohio Supreme Court to change the state's school-funding system, legislators came up with $1.4 billion in new spending for kindergarten through 12th grade, but provided less for higher education than state colleges and universities had hoped.

The people hit hardest are the students most harmed by tuition increases — minorities, the poor and first-generation college students.

State spending on higher education will remain essentially flat the next two years, according to Laura Massie, spokesman for the Ohio Board of Regents. In fiscal year 2001, which ends June 30, higher education got $2.21 billion from the state. In the new budget, higher education is set to receive $2.22 billion in fiscal year 2002 and $2.24 billion in fiscal year 2003. While those numbers reflect an actual increase in college funding, the people who run the state's colleges wanted significantly more.

"The legislature passed a budget that was $603 million less over the two years of the biennium budget than what the regents had proposed," Massie says. "It was a difficult budget and we realize that, but we still need to get out of the 1970s' waiting for the coal mines or the steel mills to reopen."

The new budget eliminates a 6.0 percent cap on yearly tuition increases that had been governed the state's public four-year colleges and universities. Gov. Bob Taft is urging restraint in tuition hikes, but many college officials ask how they can keep prices down and still compete.

"It seems to be an unfortunate fact that higher education is treated reasonably kindly in good times, but in bad times we seem to be the ones to pay the price," says Terry Thomas, executive director of the Ohio Association of Community Colleges.

Even though tuition caps didn't apply to two-year colleges and technical schools, they remain a more affordable alternative. Ohio's 23 community and technical colleges have seen significant enrollment increases in recent years, thanks to state grants that allowed them to reduce tuition by five percent in 1999-2000, Thomas says.

But that grant program, called Access Challenge, is being cut. Massie says the grants, given to urban institutions offering two-year associate degrees, will drop from $65.2 million this year to $62.2 million in fiscal year 2002 and fiscal year 2003.

With tuition at two-year colleges in Ohio already 59 percent above the national average, further hikes will deter the very students who are already most likely to forego higher education.

For Ohio to move forward, says Michele Imhoff, spokesman for Cincinnati State College, higher education must be accessible for all.

"Higher education got hit very hard in this budget cycle," Imhoff says. "What makes this even more difficult is now is the time Ohio needs people to be college educated."

Imhoff agrees the state must be concerned about public elementary and high schools, but she says that is not enough.

"Education is a continuum," she says. "It doesn't stop at 12th grade. What you're doing is just throwing up a barrier to stop it at 12th grade."

Ohio is high in tuition and low in enrollment, because of insufficient state financial support, according to Thomas. Good industrial, agricultural and mining jobs still exist in Ohio, but they are dwindling, he says. If Ohio wants to attract high-tech business and jobs, it has to invest in higher education. Funding two-year colleges yields high returns, Thomas says.

"It doesn't take very much of an investment to yield some pretty dramatic results," he says.

Access Challenge grants designed to make higher education more affordable were serving their purpose well, according to Imhoff.

"It was doing what is was supposed to do. It was increasing people entering higher education," she says.

Guess who suffers?
Thomas says the number of African-American students at community and technical colleges is up by 13 percent in recent years, while the enrollment for that group at traditional four-year colleges is flat. It remains to be seen whether the schools will be able to retain those students if tuition goes up.

According to a study completed by Cincinnati State, tuition is the single most important factor people consider when entering college.

"There's one point of view that the Ohio constitution only says the state must provide public education for kindergarten through twelfth grade," Imhoff says.

But that point of view leaves out the importance of having a well-prepared workforce — something that requires more than just a high school diploma in today's economy.

"When we don't have an educated workforce we're going to lose businesses," Imhoff says. "Unfortunately people may have to see that in order to realize there has to be a commitment to higher education."

Some in higher education fear that, by setting aside money for kindergarten through 12tn grades to the neglect of colleges and universities, Ohio is creating a generation of students who will seek degrees in other states. Studies show that where you go to college affects where you work and live afterward, according to University of Cincinnati Spokesman Greg Hand. Half of all UC graduates live in the greater-Cincinnati area, he says.

"The university is an engine for bringing college-educated taxpayers to this region," Hand says.

If that engine loses fuel, fewer college grads with needed skills will choose to make Ohio their home.

UC has seen the effects of a tighter state budget already. The university had to make a mid-year cut in its budget, because the state required it to return a portion of its state funding.

"It's already hard on us," Hand says. "The state is in such a condition they actually pulled money back this year. For next year and the year after, we are expecting declining state revenues."

In the upcoming school year, Hand says UC expects to receive $1 million less from the state.

Twenty years ago, 40 percent of UC's budget came from the state, whereas next year only 27 percent will.

"There are really only three ways to balance the budget," Hand says. "One is funding from the state, another is increasing tuition and the third is just to cut the budget."

Hand says UC will face $8 million dollars in budget cuts for next school year.

Although UC kept tuition hikes below the maximum 6.0 percent when the tuition cap was in place, next school year tuition and fees for in-state undergraduate students will rise 10.1 percent. This, according to school officials, is the first double-digit increase since the 1980s.

The branch campuses and University College will see tuition increases of 5.0 percent.

"The real concern is keeping students," Hand says. "The number-one reason that students leaving the university give is because of finances. We're concerned any time we have to raise tuition."

Kevin Kellems, spokesman for Taft's office, says the governor is aware of the concerns.

"The governor was disappointed in the level of funding provided to higher education and high-tech related programs," Kellems says. "It was a result of a falling national economy that hit states with a manufacturing base the hardest. If there was one area that the governor was disappointed in in the final budget, it was higher education."

Hand hopes Ohio makes accessible higher education a must-have in the future.

"Higher education is not a real priority for the state," he says. "Ohio provides less funding for higher education than all but about 10 states." ©