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Reversing The Trend of Slashing Public University Budgets

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A new academic year is upon us and for numerous public colleges and universities across the nation, it is the year that many have hoped for and some thought would never come.
After a long stretch of funding cuts, most states have increased funding for public higher education, providing their colleges and universities with a timely and vital infusion of public funds.

Public universities often are called one of our nation's finest inventions, and it is easy to see why, given that 15.5 million students -- or more than 70 percent of the college students in the United States -- are enrolled at a public campus. From coast to coast, generation after generation, public colleges and universities have marked the path to better futures for citizens, communities and for our nation.

These institutions have truly breathed life into Justin Morrill's founding vision of a national network of institutions that would place a college education within the grasp of every qualified student, regardless of background or means. Congressman Morrill's vision was made all the more remarkable by its timing, given that his landmark legislation passed in 1862, during the darkest days of the Civil War, leading to the opening of many publics in 1863.

If public colleges and universities did nothing other than educate millions of students, they would be indispensable to the American economy. But their importance extends far beyond that, as they have become vital engines of innovation, conducting much of the research that leads to scientific breakthroughs and to new products and jobs.

In Fiscal Year 2011, $65 billion in research was conducted at our nation's universities and seven of the 10 largest research universities were public or state-supported. According to National Science Foundation data, research conducted at public campuses more than doubled that at privates.

But despite their obvious importance, public colleges and universities have had to weather a prolonged financial storm as cash-strapped states curbed support.

According to Illinois State University data, state funding for public higher education took an alarming plunge over the past five years, dropping from more than $80 billion in Fiscal Year 2008 to $71.9 billion last year.

The loss of state funding has had numerous negative effects, the most obvious being rising tuition bills that challenged families across the nation and exacerbated the student debt crisis.

The trend became so dire that a recent study actually posited that state funding for public higher education would disappear in every state by 2059, were the slide to continue. In my own state, Massachusetts, it was projected that state funding would disappear more quickly and be gone by 2035 - meaning that a child born today would potentially graduate from an entirely private University of Massachusetts.

So is the situation dire, irreversible, hopeless?

Based on what we are now seeing in state capitals across the nation, the answer could be "no." Help appears to be on the way.

With state economies bouncing back and with officials recognizing the need for more support, funding for public higher education is up in nearly 40 states -- compared with increases in only eight states two years ago -- indicating, one hopes, a new era of support.

In Massachusetts, Governor Deval Patrick and the legislature have approved one of the largest increases for public higher education in state history. The five-campus University of Massachusetts system received a $39 million, or 9 percent, increase, ending a funding slide that began with the recession in 2008. UMass, in return, will freeze tuition and fees during the upcoming year and has pledged to build on efficiency efforts that have borne considerable fruit in recent years.

Additionally, the new Massachusetts budget states an intent to provide UMass with a major increase next year, partly in recognition of the university's increasingly important role in Massachusetts and also to reverse a trend that now sees students providing a disproportionate share of the funding needed to support core academic programs. Massachusetts House Speaker Robert DeLeo notes that signaling future intent through the budget is unusual but says public higher education has to be seen as a key priority.

Nurturing public higher education may seem like a natural thing for Massachusetts, given its role as the birthplace of public education, but state funding for public colleges and universities has lagged historically, something many ascribe to the shadow cast by the state's illustrious private institutions.

But the encouraging news is that Massachusetts increasingly seems to embrace the view that public higher education is an indispensable engine for social and economic progress.

If the advances we are seeing in the states could be matched by favorable steps in Washington, on issues ranging from Stafford loans to reauthorizing the Higher Education Act to keeping research funding flowing in the right direction, we would have a true recipe for success.

America would be guaranteeing its ability to compete and to prosper -- and somewhere, a congressman from Vermont who changed our nation, Justin Morrill, would be smiling.