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Find the Money For Higher Education

By Robert McCartney
Thursday, October 1, 2009

One of the big advantages of living in Virginia has long been the state's outstanding public colleges and universities, where students can get a top-quality education considerably cheaper than at a private institution. For nearly 20 years, Maryland has been formally committed to improving its university system to reach a comparable level.

Now, however, both states' higher education systems are at risk of deteriorating because of budget cuts. The recession is partly to blame, but the downturn is only aggravating a problem that's been building for years and needs serious attention.

Politicians who have allowed the Virginia and Maryland systems to suffer from chronic shortfalls in funding need to live up to their pledges to support public universities, so our children can get good educations and our region can remain economically competitive with other parts of the country and the world. The two current candidates for governor of Virginia, both of whom are making ambitious promises to expand higher education, need to say more clearly how they'd pay the price.

In interviews, the presidents of the two states' flagship universities -- C.D. Mote Jr. of the University of Maryland at College Park and John T. Casteen III of the University of Virginia -- both warned that the quality of their systems would decline unless current budget trends are reversed. They predicted increased class size, fewer course offerings and less responsive services, among other dangers.

"It's been under stress for quite a few years, and of course the current economy has just increased that stress," Mote said. The College Park campus has lost nearly $38 million of its planned $426 million of state funding for the year, and he said layoffs are unavoidable.

"The sad issue for us is, the overall quality that we've been building up so well for a long time is going to suffer, just because of the absence of personnel," Mote said.

Casteen has been speaking out about the issue for a while and has raised the volume a bit since announcing that he's stepping down next year after two decades as president in Charlottesville. The state provided about 30 percent of U-Va.'s budget in the 1980s, compared with about 7 percent now. "I'm trying to hold the state to account," Casteen said. "If you don't set priorities and finance what you say is important, you don't get the results. It's not just the quality. [Virginia] is losing the ability to educate its children."

Casteen will get some support, at least in lip service, at a high-powered conference in Richmond on Thursday. Top Virginia businessmen and politicians will call for increasing the number of degrees awarded by Virginia universities over the next decade as a vital step to keep the state's workforce competitive.

The Virginia Business Higher Education Council organized the meeting, and scheduled participants include Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D); former governors George Allen (R) and Gerald L. Baliles (D); and the two candidates for governor, state Sen. R. Creigh Deeds (D) and former attorney general Robert F. McDonnell (R).

The council has been working closely with Deeds and McDonnell, and both candidates are echoing its views.

Deeds basically endorses the council's plan, which calls for adding 70,000 degrees in the next 10 years, an 18 percent increase. McDonnell looks a bit further ahead, and urges adding 100,000 degrees in the next 15 years.

That's all fine, but where do we get the money? I asked spokesmen for both campaigns, and the answers were fuzzy.

Deeds's representative said the initial funds would come from savings achieved by greater efficiency in state government. We've heard that sort of thing before.

McDonnell's campaign said he "will work to craft a bipartisan plan that provides for sustained investment" in higher education. That sounds remarkably like the equally vague Deeds plan for transportation funding, which McDonnell trashes every chance he gets.

On the bright side, as both campaigns have stressed, investments in higher education generate enough economic growth and tax revenue to more than pay for themselves in the long run. A 75-page study for the council shows that Virginia gets back $1.39 in tax revenue for every dollar it spends on public higher education.

That's partly because education makes the workforce more productive and because university researchers attract federal and private money.

Since 1991, Maryland has been formally committed to invest in its state universities to improve quality -- and has consistently fallen short. The College Park campus has been shortchanged by $100 million or more annually, compared with 1991 guidelines, and $200 million a year compared with recommendations issued in December by a blue-ribbon commission headed by Del. John L. Bohanan Jr. (D-St. Mary's County).

The pressure on state universities is a nationwide problem that threatens America's international economic standing. (A rare exception is the District, where the University of the District of Columbia has so far escaped cuts.) The U.S. position in the world is bound to slip a bit as China, India and other poorer countries develop. But it's going to slip faster and further if we neglect the public colleges and universities that helped us build our economy in the first place.

Textbooks or Touchdowns?

Here's one measure of what interests the public about state universities: How many Post stories referred to presidents and coaches since the start of 2008?

Maryland president Mote: 26

Maryland football coach Ralph Friedgen: 177

Virginia president Casteen: 9

Virginia football coach Al Groh: 114

I discuss local issues at 8:51 a.m. Friday on WAMU (88.5 FM). E-mail me at robertmccartney@washpost.com.

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