Colleges brace for bigger classes and less bang for more bucks

By Mary Beth Marklein
The New York Times
August 27, 2003, Wednesday

MADISON, Wis. -- It's an axiom among state policymakers: In tough economic times, colleges and universities take the cuts first, and hardest. After all, there's always a backup money source: students.

But tell that to Richard Thomson, a doctoral student here at the University of Wisconsin's flagship campus, where his industrial relations department is being eliminated right under his nose. Or to professor Ken Mayer, who will teach up to 570 undergraduates in an introductory political science course in the spring. Or to staffers of a 41-year-old research center on campus whose jobs are slated to disappear on Oct. 31.

The University of Wisconsin has imposed double-digit tuition and fee increases -- up 16% this academic year at Madison, to $5,138. But the increases won't make up for an unprecedented $250 million cut in state funding for the 26-campus system over the next two years. The jump in tuition will net the system $150 million during the next two years. But as officials tried to pare the remaining $100 million, UW-system President Katharine Lyall says, "Nothing was sacred."

Similar scenarios are unfolding at public universities nationwide. Higher-education spending in state after state is being cut to help governors make up for budget deficits even as tuition bills rise.

In a USA TODAY survey of 68 major public universities in all 50 states, 28 have increased both in- and out-of-state tuition and fees by more than 10% for the 2003-2004 school year. Ten have raised in-state tuition and fees by more than 20%. In three states -- Arizona, California and New York -- all the schools surveyed reported in-state increases of more than 20%. Of the universities surveyed, only the University of Mississippi's tuition did not rise.

Public university officials are warning students that they will face larger classes, longer lines and fewer course options. But only when students return to campus during the next few weeks will they begin to grasp the full impact.

In the 11-campus University System of Maryland, where tuition increases will run up to 21%, some campuses have cut library hours and services. The integrated marketing communications program at the University of Colorado in Boulder will shut down after the last class graduates in December.

The worst-case scenario has hit California, where a $38 billion state deficit has Democratic Gov. Gray Davis fighting for his political life. The California State University system is asking students to pay 30% more this year and closing the doors to new students on most of its 23 campuses in the spring. The 10-campus University of California system says it might follow suit.

Hard times in Madison

The University of Wisconsin took one of the deepest hits to state higher-education spending this year.

As word of the cuts trickled down State Street, the seven-block corridor connecting the Capitol with the university system's most prestigious campus, top-level school officials developed a pecking order of priorities: Cuts affecting instruction must be minimal. Programs for minorities and disadvantaged students should be preserved as much as possible. Administrative costs, already shaved to less than 6% of the budget, must be trimmed even more.

To avoid duplicating similar programs on multiple campuses, expensive majors -- those requiring costly lab equipment, for example -- are being consolidated onto one or two regional campuses. UW-Platteville will specialize in engineering, and many health majors will be housed on the La Crosse and Milwaukee campuses. An online nursing program was developed to enable students statewide to receive degrees in a field in which national shortages are reaching crisis levels.

Such programs also will remain on the Madison campus, which as a national research institution that annually generates hundreds of millions of dollars in grants, needs to offer a broader array of programs and services. Even so, administrators must eliminate about 300 courses, 90 administrative slots and 60 faculty positions.

They have kicked into Darwinian mode. Faculty positions -- their salaries the largest expenditure in higher-education operating budgets -- are more protected than staff slots, but no professors are expecting raises this year. Ensuring that required freshman courses are available has been deemed more important than offering a variety of senior seminars or graduate courses.

For this fall, funding was denied for dozens of upper-level electives -- Arts in India in the Art History department, for example, and James Joyce in the English department.

The College of Letters and Sciences -- with 44 departments the largest school on campus and the one that educates the most undergraduates -- is keeping track of the 200 courses with the lowest enrollments. They will be prime candidates for the chopping block.

That could mean that only the most popular courses will survive.

"I don't feel good about it at all," says Letters and Sciences Dean Phil Certain, who must cut $4.5 million from his budget. "What makes a university great is often the lower-enrollment courses that you can't get anywhere else."

For now, he is dealing with cuts primarily by leaving faculty slots unfilled or shifting staff in vulnerable programs to other jobs. But this fall, Certain says, academic departments will receive details about cuts in the years ahead.

Some faculty members in larger programs are being asked to teach bigger classes. Mayer, the political science professor, says he doesn't mind doing that. In the spring, he'll teach Introduction to American Government in the largest lecture hall on campus.

But "there's a real limit to the kinds of things you can do," says Mayer, who had 564 students in the course last spring. "I probably got to know 20 students by name, and they had to take the initiative to get to know me."

Smaller departments at Wisconsin face a different juggling act.

"If we cut any one (faculty slot), we cannot offer the required courses for the major," says Junko Mori, associate professor of Japanese in the East Asian Languages and Literature department, where three faculty members will teach nine courses this fall.

The department has just hired a professor to cover Japanese history and will not lose any of its 10 graduate teaching assistant positions.

But it won't get a visiting professor, and the classical literature professor also will teach modern literature.

"It's a big puzzle," says Mori, acknowledging what other faculty worry about privately: that being too successful at making do with fewer resources could be counterproductive. "If it's easily done, then there will be no hope for the future that it will change."

Passed on to students

Student governments at various campuses reluctantly have supported tuition increases to try to make sure that educational quality is maintained. Still, the impact of the cuts is on students' minds.

As budget problems worsened, UW-Madison senior Austin King, 22, has watched classes in his major, Spanish, double in size. That can be especially burdensome in a class in which student-faculty interaction is critical.

"It's a lot more difficult to ask questions when you don't understand a phrase," he says.

Graduate student Richard Thomson has many questions about his future. The university is closing the Industrial Relations Research Institute, where he is working on a doctorate. But Thomson and other graduate students will be allowed to finish their degrees.

That leaves Thomson, 28, to wonder about everything from "the mundane to the macro," as he puts it: Will the department printer still be available? How will his dissertation committee be assembled? What will prospective employers think about an industrial relations degree from Madison?

Over at the Land Tenure Center, also slated for closure, concerns focus on whether UW is squandering its lofty Wisconsin Idea -- the proud tradition of faculty and staff sharing knowledge and research with people near and far. For decades, the center has conducted outreach; its work on land reform in Zimbabwe was featured in the August 2003 National Geographic.

On the plus side, a graduate program in development studies will continue. But that won't help Charles Chavunduka, 42, a student from Zimbabwe whose education funding is tied to Land Tenure Center projects. If the center folds, his funding goes.

Chavunduka, who is supporting a wife and children, is looking for other graduate assistant positions. But, he says, "My future is very unsettled."

Seeking a 'middle ground'

Wisconsin's Democratic governor, Jim Doyle, who was elected last November on a no-new-taxes pledge, acknowledges putting the UW system in a tight spot.

But given the state's $3.2 billion deficit, "simply saying 'no cuts' (in higher education) would have been irresponsible," says Doyle spokesman Dan Leistikow. He notes that other state programs also took hits.

The National Governors Association reports that 47 cash-starved states are grappling with budget deficits for fiscal 2004.

States are required to fund costly programs such as Medicaid or elementary and secondary education, but not higher education. That's a key reason why public universities are easy targets.

University officials in Wisconsin and elsewhere stress that even with tuition increases, higher education at public institutions is a bargain. In his commencement speech in May, UW Chancellor John Wiley reminded Wisconsin residents that despite tuition increases, taxpayers subsidized about $25,000 of each bachelor's degree, more than matching what students paid.

Even so, for universities, the budget cuts coincide with growing pressures on several fronts. Enrollments in many states are reaching all-time highs, with no signs of abating for years, and increasing numbers of students are expected to need financial aid.

Homeland-security-related federal mandates have forced universities to track international students more closely and increase the security of research labs -- all at the universities' expense. A proposal to be introduced next month in Congress would pull federal higher-education funds, worth about $65 billion next year, from colleges that don't keep tuition increases in check.

State officials, meanwhile, want a tighter rein on how money is spent.

"It's not that the governors don't care about higher education," says Dane Linn of the National Governors Association's Center for Best Practices. "Governors probably have a perception that there's more bloat . . . than there really is. At the same time, institutions feel they're stretching every dollar possible. . . . There has to be a middle ground."

On many public university campuses, faculty members and administrators argue that state officials are biting the hands that feed them. UW data show that the system contributes $9.5 billion annually to the state's economy -- a tenfold return on the state's investment in public higher education. It returns 40% of its state support by generating $408 million in state tax revenue. And it creates more than 150,000 jobs.

Yet when adjusted for inflation, the state is investing less in the UW than it was when the system was created more than 30 years ago. The state portion of the university budget has been cut nearly in half, dropping to 27.3% this fiscal year from 49.9% in 1973-74.

That has many in the university community wondering about the future of public higher education, which today educates about 80% of college students. If taxpayer support continues to dwindle, UW oncology professor Richard Burgess says, "We hardly can be considered a state university anymore."

State support is dropping

The percentage of the University of Wisconsin-Madison budget supported by state taxes has decreased in the past 10 years:

1993-94: 30.9%

2003-04: 20.7%

...but still tops tuition

State taxes remain a larger source of revenue than tuitionin the 2003-2004 budget at the University of Wisconsin-Madison:

Federal: 26.4%

State taxes: 20.7%

Gifts and grants: 19.3%

Auxilliaries: 18.2%

Tuition: 15.4%