Higher education may be first to see cuts

Liz Goodwin

This week, hundreds of college students and faculty protested at the Louisiana Capitol in Baton Rouge against $310 million in cuts to education over the past two years.

According to at least one advocate for higher education, other states can expect similar scenes to play out in their midst as federal stimulus funds dry up and lawmakers target state universities to plug gaping deficit holes.

Terry Hartle of the American Council on Education tells The Upshot that state politicians often turn to higher education when they need to make budget cuts, because students "look very much like paying customers."

In-state tuition has jumped 7.9 percent just this year, according to a recent study, and the average college student's debt is now a record $24,000.

At  least 38 states are projecting budget deficits for the next year, and unlike the federal government, states are required to balance their budgets and cannot roll over any deficits.

"If you were to give a holiday greeting card to any of the newly elected governors, it would be appropriate for it to say 'Congratulations, the ship of state is in your hands!' And then you'd open it up and it would say, 'A big iceberg is ahead!' " Harlte says.

Republicans, who often oppose tax increases to raise revenues, gained five more governors' seats this election, and more than 690 seats in state legislatures. "I think a lot of new governors are of the mind that taxes are high enough and they just want to cut spending," Hartle says.

Wisconsin, for example, is going to face a budget deficit that's almost 30 percent of its total operating budget, and its new governor is asking university leaders to help him balance the budget. The president of the University of Missouri, Gary Forsee, said a 10 percent tuition hike would not be enough to fill the hole he anticipates from slashed state funding. The Colorado Commission on Higher Education, meanwhile, released a "doomsday" report predicting 50 percent cuts in financial aid to students if state funding is halved. (It doesn't appear that the funding cuts being contemplated will be quite so drastic, however.) Iowa universities are bracing for another round of cuts after $134 million was already slashed from their funding.

Meanwhile, on the federal level, GOP House leader John Boehner's pledge to cut $100 billion in non-defense discretionary spending could put at risk a key program that makes college more affordable for some families. The federal Pell Grants, which gave 7.7 million low-income students an average of $3,646 to pay for college last year, cost a total of $28.2 billion.

Elementary and secondary public education is generally safer from the red pen, but teachers are also worried about funding cuts.

"I think we're worried about every state because every state is in budget crisis," Kim Anderson of the National Education Association teachers union tells The Upshot. "We're worried about a one-two punch from a federal and state level."

(Photo of Louisiana students protesting education cuts: AP/Patrick Semansky)