The University of Massachusetts in Boston has become a symbol of tough times. The 10th floor of the library is being used as offices and classrooms. Tuition has jumped 64% since 1988, to $2,134 a year, and additional fees have soared 659%, to $1,913. Over the past three years, the school has laid off 16% of its faculty. And school officials have shuttered the undergraduate legal program and the 1,000-student Park Square campus downtown. "We don't feel we could go any lower without impacting the academic mission," says David A. Edwards, associate vice-chancellor for administration and finance at UMass Boston.
Although the crunch first hit UMass four years ago, the school has plenty of collegiate company today. To finance rising costs of other programs while balancing their budgets, many states have savaged higher-education funding. California slashed nearly 10% of its $4.5 billion budget for state universities in September, and at least 27 other states have cuts planned, too. As a result, public tuition increases average 12% this year, the largest jump since 1983, according to the College Board, a nonprofit educational organization.
The effects already are being felt, say panicky college officials: a permanent decline in accessibility at some of America's most prestigious public schools. "Quality is already starting to erode," says Michael Armstrong, director of planning for the Florida State University System. "It costs more to do less."
The cuts come at a time when public higher education is under siege. Citing bloated bureaucracies and an overemphasis on research, Representative Patricia Schroeder (D-Colo.) says: "Higher education has lost sight of its purpose to educate the public." Colleges have been mismanaged for years, she and others argue, and the admittedly rough medicine they're now swallowing could result in a leaner, more efficient system that actually serves students better.
Trouble is, the recession-induced cuts are hitting both poorly managed and well-run universities alike. What matters isn't administrative efficiency but the scale of a state's budget woes. Through much of the 1980s, public schools received hefty increases well above the rate of inflation from state legislatures, which provide 60% of their funding. As the recession hit, the percentage of state general revenues going to public colleges began shrinking to 6.8% in 1990 from 7.3% in 1987, according to the American Association of State Colleges & Universities. In Massachusetts, support for the Boston campus has plummeted from $61.1 million in 1987 to $36.8 million in 1992. In Florida, per-student state appropriations have dropped from $7,200 in 1989 to $5,300 in 1992.
SALARY FREEZE. The budget ills are taking their toll in different ways. The University of Virginia economizes by not updating academic journals and reducing travel to scholarly meetings. San Diego State University's state aid was cut 8.8% in May, on top of 15% last year, prompting plans to close nine departments, including health sciences, industrial studies, and aerospace engineering. At the University of Maryland, administrators are bracing for a 12% budget cut this year. The reductions translate into more crowded classrooms, less building maintenance, and salary freezes.
The burdens are obvious. Still, some education experts believe the fiscal overhaul of universities is healthy -- and long overdue. Colleges have been crying poverty -- and raising tuition -- for most of the past decade (chart, page 114), saying the money was needed for faculty raises and modern academic equipment.
But Schroeder, who chairs the House Select Committee on Children, Youth & Families, complains of waste: Administrative expenses have become the fastest-rising cost on campus, she notes. An increased emphasis on research has meant that professors spend only six to eight hours a week teaching. Yet, says Schroeder, a College Board survey found that more than half of the professors spent fewer than five hours a week in research, and a third admit to none at all. "If they're not conducting research or teaching, just what are they doing?" she asked at a Sept. 14 hearing. Says Jacob K. Goldhaber, acting dean at the University of Maryland at College Park: "The mission of research institutions is to store, transmit, and create knowledge. When you attack the research institutions, you're attacking the seed corn of our future."
A CLOGGED SYSTEM? Nonetheless, some experts believe that raising tuition could be a blessing in disguise. Thanks to public schools' low fees and open-enrollment policies, 60% of American high-school graduates -- far more than other nations' -- spend some time at college. But only 25% make it all the way through. The dropouts, critics say, waste resources and clog up the system. "Low tuition acts as a magnet for the kids who don't know what they want to do," argues Arthur M. Hauptman, a Washington financial consultant for universities. Tuition hikes would reduce class size, he says, and the extra money could go toward scholarships. But it hasn't worked out that way so far: California, New York, and Virginia have cut state financial aid, despite tuition hikes of 15% to 40% in the past year.
With tuition averaging $2,317 a year, public college still seems like a bargain. Nevertheless, says Beverly Coles, director of education and housing for the NAACP, education is becoming increasingly inaccessible for African-American students, 85% of whom receive aid. "Instead of having too many people in college," says Coles, "you probably don't have enough."
To alleviate their financial woes, some universities have turned to corporations for grants. "If they want an educated work force, they'd better invest," says UMass's Edwards. Others are focusing on areas in which they excel. But the trend toward decreased funding seems difficult to reverse. With classrooms becoming more crowded and students paying more tuition, hard times at State U. will mean a higher price for everyone.