Funding Cuts Leave Washington, D.C., Area Colleges Gasping

By Daniel de Vise
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, September 12, 2009

The University of Virginia is shutting down its public computer labs. Maryland's community colleges are turning away students by the thousands. Classes are larger at George Mason and Virginia Tech. The University of Maryland Baltimore County is cutting positions. And Virginia's state universities are coping with furloughs for the first time in recent memory.

State funding for higher education is eroding in Virginia and Maryland, reflecting a national retrenchment for public colleges and universities.

Virginia Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D) announced a nearly 15 percent reduction in state aid this week, to be partly offset by federal stimulus dollars. Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley (D) reduced higher education funding by $30 million last month. They were the latest in a string of cuts in the two states that have diminished overall support to higher education by 10 percent in Maryland and 20 to 30 percent in Virginia, all in little more than a year.

Jillian Ferron, a 19-year-old GMU sophomore, said classes seem "a touch bigger" this year and course choices seem fewer.

"One of the things I noticed when I was scheduling my classes was that there were less sections available," she said. "Like one of my government classes, typically there are three or four sections, and this semester there were only two."

Tuition is up, and Ferron's housing costs rose by about $1,000. "I remember my mom was not very happy about that at all," she said.

"People are more stretched than ever," said Freeman A. Hrabowski III, president of UMBC, which has laid off 22 non-teaching employees and frozen 40 vacant positions, including eight faculty slots. "This is a time for deciding what's most important to do on a campus."

The University of the District of Columbia, alone among schools in the Washington area, has escaped state budget cuts. Its $62.1 million local appropriation for the current fiscal year has not been touched.

College leaders say the retreat in state support threatens the academic currency of the region's flagship public universities, whose dwindling funds put them at a competitive disadvantage to top private universities in retaining faculty and academic rankings. The cuts have imperiled the mission of Virginia's and Maryland's two- and four-year colleges to provide high-quality education to all. Maryland community colleges, for example, have turned away at least 2,000 students this semester for lack of space.

For students and faculty, less state aid means more of "all the things that people don't like about higher education," said Terry W. Hartle, senior vice president of the American Council on Education, a District-based organization that represents presidents and chancellors.

More classes at the University of Virginia are being taught by part-time adjunct faculty, and the institution is preparing for its first furlough in the modern era. "I've worked here for 27 years -- we've never done this," said Colette Sheehy, vice president for management and budget.

GMU classes are larger than before the recession by two to four students. The extra bodies might not mean much in a lecture hall, but they could make an intensive writing class a bit less intensive. "You worry that the academic experience will be affected," Provost Peter Stearns said.

At Northern Virginia Community College, one of the largest community colleges in the country with more than 60,000 students, less money means longer lines "for just about everything," said President Robert G. Templin Jr., "whether you are applying for financial aid, you want to meet with your professor after class or you want to see your guidance counselor." State funding is down 19 percent from last year and enrollment is up more than 10 percent. Many classes are oversubscribed.

"The longer-term impact is you may not be able to graduate in two years," Templin said. "It may take three years."

The School of Public Policy at the University of Maryland has 10 percent fewer faculty members this year, said its dean, Don Kettl. Administrators are working "incredibly hard to get students into the courses they need" to graduate. Faculty members, meanwhile, are coping with reductions in everything from computer repair to photocopying services. At a staff meeting Thursday, Kettl said, in lieu of a tray of refreshments, "somebody brought a pack of Oreos out of their pocket and passed it around."

Montgomery College officials said they are not sure that they have enough employees to staff the school's new performing arts center. A vacant position can be filled only if a committee deems it essential. Maryland's community colleges, funded separately from the state university system, have sustained a 5 percent budget cut.

Higher education funding is in retreat across the nation. Thirty-one states made midyear budget cuts to public colleges and universities in the fiscal cycle that ended in June. At least 28 states proposed budget cuts for the current fiscal year, said Dan Hurley, director of state relations and policy analysis at the American Association of State Colleges and Universities.

The cumulative effect is a gradual shift in state-supported higher education "from a public good to a privately purchased good," Hurley said. Governments in California, Florida, New York and other states have increased college tuition by 15 percent or more this year, according to the American Council on Education.

Maryland has fared better than most. O'Malley is credited with freezing tuition in the state university system for four years and shielding colleges from extreme cuts. "I don't think any governor has a better record of support for public education than Martin O'Malley," said Hartle, of the American Council on Education. In California, by contrast, "the cuts are draconian," he said, including enrollment caps and double-digit tuition increases.

Virginia institutions have taken more of a hit than those in Maryland. At Virginia Tech, state spending per in-state student has declined by 30 percent since the 2000-01 academic year, without adjusting for inflation or for the latest funding cuts. Colleges and universities will be cut 13 to 15 percent in the latest reductions. Kaine said he would seek permission to use federal stimulus money to restore some funding, resulting in a net reduction of 8 percent.

"It's a huge cost shift to the backs of students," said Lawrence Hincker, a university spokesman.

In a letter to the College of William and Mary community Tuesday, President Taylor Reveley reported that the school's state support had declined by one-third since last year. "We must increasingly fend for ourselves," he wrote.

Last month, U-Va. President John T. Casteen III vented at state leaders for putting "essentially every priority ahead of education." He was reacting to the latest ranking in U.S. News & World Report. His school placed 24th among national universities in overall quality. But on one key measure, financial resources, the school was 64th.

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