Universities must find alternative sources of funding in light of state budget cuts, University leaders and lawmakers say

Caleb Wong

Institutions of higher education must work with each other and the public and private sectors to fund their programs in light of decreased state funding, said top higher education officials and lawmakers.

Former U.S. Sen. Kay Hutchison (R-TX) and former University of California-Berkeley Chancellor Robert Birgeneau spoke at a press conference Wednesday before a closed-door meeting about higher education funding.

“Historically, higher education funding has always come back after a recovery,” Birgeneau said. “This time, it has not.” 

The meeting comes after the American Academy of Arts and Sciences released a report, known as the “Lincoln Project,” last Thursday, warning that state support for higher education has declined an average of 34 percent over the past decade. Hutchison, chairman of the Texas Exes and UT alumna, served as an advisor to the report, and Birgeneau co-chaired the report committee.

“For the moment, [public institutions of higher education] have maintained their educational and research missions,” the report said. “But this trend is not sustainable.” 

Although Fenves was not involved in the creation of the report, he hosted a press conference about its findings and said he was “very supportive” of its goals. 

The report makes several recommendations to help universities thrive with decreased state support, including “establish[ing] annual cost and efficiency targets,” beefing up their giving programs, providing financial aid to low-income, in-state undergraduate students, tracking student performance in real-time, and improving the transfer process from community college and online “gateway courses,” among other priorities. 

“However, considering the importance of these institutions to students, local communities, and the nation, we must all assume responsibility for their future,” the report reads. “We cannot allow these essential institutions to erode. The burdens of stewardship fall upon us all.” 

Hutchison said state legislatures cut higher education funding because it is perceived that these institutions have the ability to make up the difference through
private funds. 

“Tuition has gone up higher when the legislature was in charge of making those decisions,” Hutchison said. “The public institutions, have in fact, under the direction of the Board of Regents, cut costs.”

In Texas, top state lawmakers have criticized UT System institutions over recent tuition increases after UT-Austin increased its tuition by about $300 per semester by fall 2017. In a letter sent to the presidents of the System’s institutions, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and Kel Seliger, chairman of the Senate Higher Education Committee, said higher education has been funded at “historic levels” and a tuition increase would “increase the financial burden faced by students and their families.” 

State budgets face increasing costs for programs, such as Medicaid and prisons. This tends to make higher education the “balance wheel,” or the program that can be easily cut, Birgeneau said.

“Some states spend more money putting people in prison than educating their college [students],” Birgeneau said. “The states are under horrific pressures with all of these programs.” 

Birgeneau said the federal government, the states, companies and other stakeholders are going to have to work closely with universities to make higher education affordable for students and competitive in research fields.

 “We need a 21st century budget model for public research universities,” Birgeneau said. “This is a lot to ask for, but the resources are out there, so this …
can happen.”