07/13/2011 02:44 pm ET Updated Sep 12, 2011

How Educated Is Your State Legislator?

How educated is your state legislator? The answer varies considerably from state to state. While many lawmakers hold a college degree, support of public higher education, it seems, has always been a challenge. Consider this scenario:

Sufficient funds have been raised to support initial construction of the academic buildings and the first faculty member has been hired. But the state legislature is reluctant to provide funding to allow completion of the building, causing considerable delays of opening for its first academic year. Ripple effects ensue. The first freshmen class cannot be admitted if the university is not ready, and the first cohort of faculty are up in arms, as are the staff -- not to mention the builder and construction crew waiting to complete the buildings.

Fuming with frustration, the University's founder writes a letter in March to one of the new faculty members informing him that:

... the Treasurer's default at so critical a moment will, in my opinion, have the unfortunate effect of delaying the opening (of) the institution another year...

Things do not improve. In fact, public support of this new university remains difficult, delaying opening by not one but five years. By that time, the original entering class would have likely already graduated! The originally hired faculty resign.

Throughout this nightmare of financial woes, the founder never loses faith, keeping the dream alive of a new university that would allow individuals to achieve their highest potential unlike anything accomplished before.

Is this scenario ridiculous, fictional? No, it is not. The situation described is adapted from a letter by Thomas Jefferson, founder of the University of Virginia, to Dr. Thomas Cooper hired as the first faculty member to teach natural science and law, dated March 8, 1820.

Public institutions of higher education are increasingly expected to do more with less. In New Jersey, the legislature has reduced funding to state colleges and universities more than seven times in the last decade. The last public bond investment for facilities was some 22 years ago. At the same time, enrollments continue to increase.

Many states are divesting themselves from support of public higher education, yet most of their legislators, about 80%, have benefited from a college degree from a public institution. Overall, close to 75% of legislators hold a bachelor's degree or higher, compared to 28% within the US population.

Take a look at this map to see how your state compares.

A version of this article was published at Dean's Corner at ScienceBlogs.