The workhorse of higher education is at risk

Published 12:00 am Sunday, February 22, 2004

Harry Greene was born in 1890 in County Westmeath, Republic of Ireland. When I first met him in 1964, he had already refined a long collection of tales into a rich portfolio of folk wisdom. One of his stories comes to mind as a parable for Virginia’s budget crisis. It seems a poor farmer was always looking for ways to cut costs and sustain his production. He convinced himself that he could teach his horse to get along without eating. Day by day, he cut back on the horse’s oats. For a while, things went well. The farmer was sure he could have been successful if the horse had not died.

Public colleges and universities are some of the essential workhorses needed for the long-term growth and development of the workforce and economy of the Commonwealth. On average, the more education you have, the greater your income and life opportunities will be. But the workhorse is at risk. While Virginia is hardly poor, and no one has suggested eliminating the higher education budget, some of the farmer’s thinking has been in the air. We were hit hard by the recent recession. State revenues were down. The Governor and General Assembly had to make some difficult choices to balance the budget. In the past two years, state officials reduced funding for public higher education in Virginia by $532 million. Senior colleges and universities have lost one-fourth of their state appropriations. Funding for community colleges in Virginia was cut by over 15 percent. Only a few states in the nation have had deeper reductions in their support for higher education.

These recent budget cuts came on the heels of over a decade of not fully funding public higher education for expanded services and increased enrollments. The Virginia Community College System receives 78 percent of what the General Assembly itself identifies as base budget adequacy. This means that for every five full-time students taught, community colleges receive a state appropriation for only four of the students. So, what are the consequences of this pattern of reducing the oats for Paul D. Camp Community College?


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To offset some of the budget cuts, tuition and fees have gone from $38.62 per credit hour in 2001-2002 to $62.75 per credit hour today. This is a 62 percent increase that translates into more than a $700 growth in the price for a full-time student. Part-time students, who are not eligible for financial aid, have been hit particularly hard by these increases.

PDCCC has four fewer full-time faculty members than two years ago. Vacancies have had to go unfilled to cope with budget cuts. Across the Virginia Community College System, there are 167 fewer full-time faculty members today than there were in 1980, even though the VCCS enrolls the equivalent of 21,000 more full-time students today. As recently as 1987, 70 percent of course sections were taught by full-time faculty members. Today, only 45 percent are taught by full-timers.

At PDCCC, there have been other consequences from the shortage in state support. Fewer sections of even basic courses are offered. Library hours are shorter than they should be. Instructional technologies are not updated at an appropriate pace. Too few personnel are available to serve the public in key functional areas. Maintenance needs are being deferred.

With mandatory growth in expenditures for Medicaid and K-12 education outstripping all realistic projections for revenue growth through 2010 from current sources, it is time to acknowledge that more budget cuts are not the only solutions. To their credit, Democratic Governor Mark Warner and Republican Senator John Chichester have proposed increasing state revenues through fundamental changes in the tax code. Many members of the House of Delegates, known for signing a pledge not to raise taxes, have continued to insist that they could make a few more cuts in the horses’ oats to balance the budget. With the state’s AAA bond rating at stake, recently some of them have acknowledged it might be prudent to close a few business tax exemptions to generate some new revenue. However, it is unclear how much this will help and doubtful it will be enough.

The workhorse of higher education could be seriously hurt if a political logjam continues in Richmond. Although well intentioned, those willing to assume we can continue to serve the citizens of the Commonwealth adequately – even as state support for education declines – need to remember the outcome of Harry Greene’s parable. A weakened horse will not be an effective partner for economic and workforce development.

The current session of the Virginia General Assembly presents a unique opportunity to do the right thing for higher education so educators can more effectively serve individual citizens and Virginia’s employers to help secure a brighter future for the Commonwealth. Let your representative know how you feel over the critical days ahead (see for contact information).

Dr. Douglas W. Boyce,

President, Paul D. Camp Community College, serving the cities of Franklin and Suffolk and Isle of Wight and Southampton counties.