Budget Cuts Take Toll on Education

Budget cuts have hit public colleges hard, even as the demand for a well-educated workforce soars.

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That's effectively trapping thousands of Californians, like 20-year-old Sarah Hendrickson, into unemployment or low-paying, dead-end jobs. Hendrickson, who is wrapping up her associate's degree at a community college in San Luis Obispo, says she broke down in tears when her adviser told her she couldn't transfer into the overcrowded local state university for at least another year. "I am kind of stuck in all aspects of my life," she says.

California is the most extreme case, but many other states are closing classroom doors by raising tuition or cutting aid. In Florida, where the higher education budget this year is $153 million, or 4 percent, lower than last year's, many public universities will hike tuition by 15 percent. A year at Stony Brook University in New York, where state legislators have required public colleges to send some of their tuition money to the state's general fund to reduce the deficit, will cost students at least $1,000 more this year. The state of Washington, which has reduced its higher education budget by $168 million, or 10.6 percent, will raise tuition at public universities by about 14 percent this year. Washington's governor, Christine Gregoire, says that raising tuition was the least bad of all the options to make up a $9 billion shortfall over the next two years.

Although the federal government has increased the number and size of the need-based Pell grants and made it easier to take out and repay federally backed loans, many states, such as Florida and West Virginia, are reining in their financial aid programs. The net result is that the true cost of college for many students is rising at a time when they have less money.

Jon Shure, a tax expert at the Washington-based Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, says state officials and taxpayers used to "subsidize students because that was in the best interests of society. Now the balance is shifting to where students pay more and taxpayers less." That will mean some low-income students who could benefit from college will either be priced out or will hobble themselves with education debt, he says.

The recession is making classrooms harder to get into, more expensive—and, possibly, less instructive. Many colleges are saving money by packing more students into fewer courses. Arizona public universities, for example, have laid off thousands of employees and canceled scores of classes and programs in the past year. "You definitely learn less," University of Arizona junior Kevin Ferguson says of his bigger classes. "You can't interact with the professor when you are contending with 200 to 300 other students." Instructors say increased class sizes mean they work many more unpaid hours and have much less time to do, for example, thoughtful grading of papers, let alone research. Instructors' time shortages are being worsened by many colleges' requirements that staffers take unpaid furlough days.

Even seemingly small cuts might threaten the quality of education. The Kentucky community college system has decided not to offer tenure to new hires, prompting outcries that the system will lose the best candidates, who prefer colleges that offer more job security. Florida State University pulled the phones out of English and history professors' offices, saving more than $12,000 a year but sparking complaints that it will be harder for students to reach professors.

No band aid. The cuts also mean fewer choices and opportunities for students. Many colleges are deciding that they can no longer fund less popular courses. Idaho State University, like many other schools, has eliminated some low-enrollment courses such as French, German, Russian, Arabic, and Chinese. Many other schools have eliminated expensive science classes. The University of Nevada-Las Vegas—fictional hometown of television's CSI—has decided to phase out its forensic science program. Others are targeting the arts: Washington State University is disbanding its theater program. The University of West Georgia has canceled some music courses. "I don't believe I've ever seen a more troubling situation" for college music students across the country, says Mark Camphouse, interim chair of George Mason University's music department.