Public universities losing state support

Taxpayer support of public higher education has dwindled more since 2001 than at any time in the last 20 years, the New York Times reported recently.

The drop has led some education officials to use the term “privatization” to describe the trend affecting public universities, but even educators who refuse to label the transformation this way said there might be a crisis afoot, according to the New York Times.

In 1991, 74 percent of all public universities’ revenues came from state and local taxes, but in 2004, revenues deriving from taxes were at 64 percent, a 10 percent decrease in 13 years, the Times reported.

America’s public higher education system coalesced with the passage of the Morrill Act of 1862. Passed during the Civil War, the law granted states in the Union 30,000 acres of public land for establishing universities for each state representative in both congressional houses.

The lands were originally intended to be sold to establish colleges in engineering, agriculture and military science. Many of the schools grew as they received additional aid into the large public universities of today.

Some experts said the decrease in public support is part of a cycle of legislative budget cuts that are necessary during recession but will no longer be needed once the recession ends.

On Oct. 26, the House Education and Workforce Committee will consider a proposal to increase cuts to student loan programs by $7 billion.

Bruce Johnstone, director of the International Comparative Higher Education Finance and Accessibility Program and professor at the University of Buffalo’s Graduate School of Education, said in a report on privatization that it may lead universities to opt for greater autonomy, higher tuition, more attention to marketing, more fund-raising, contracting out of auxiliary enterprises such as food services, the trimming of certain departments and the adopting of a service to the student as a client culture, as well as other transformations.

Students attending four-year colleges nationwide have seen their tuition rates increase by an average 36 percent between the 2000 and 2004 school years, according to the College Board.

High tuition is not the only cause of public anger. Faculty members are devoting more time to research than to the classroom instruction of students, the New York Times said, and university presidents are frequently associating with billionaire patrons – some administrators feel these phenomena are related to the dwindling of public financial support.

Experts who do not view the growing lack of public funding of higher education as a major step toward continued privatization point to the dollar amounts of state appropriations, which totaled $67 billion in 2001 and $69 billion in 2004. There is no information available for 2005.

But because enrollments rose between 2001 and 2004 by more than 1 million students, per-student appropriations fell from $6,874 to $5,721, a larger drop than at any time since the early 1980s, according to the State Higher Education Executive Officers.

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