Columns » Max Brantley

Low expectations

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My plan was to contrast the legislature’s broken promise to improve public education with the little-noticed advancement this year of higher education. After all, the state will increase its spending on colleges and universities by $76 million, or 12.3 percent, over the next two years. After all, I ran into University of Arkansas President B. Alan Sugg and he seemed positively pleased at the outcome of the session. But it turns out the gains are relative. State support for higher education accounts for only 40 to 50 percent of the cost. The rest must come from tuition, federal money and private gifts. This means that a 6.58 percent increase in funding next year can’t produce more than a 2.8 percent increase in spending at Fayetteville, where state support accounts for 40 percent of expenditures. No quantum leaps there. Sugg emphasizes other positive developments. Colleges united behind a rational state aid formula, rather than free-lancing. The state will, for example, provide the same money for a basic English course in both Monticello and Fayetteville. But UA-Fayetteville, as a comprehensive doctoral granting institution, will get reimbursements tailored to its expansive programs. As positive as Sugg and others wanted to be, they conceded the inevitable truth. The added money will not forestall another round of tuition increases. Legislators who thought the funding increase should protect students from sticker shock don’t or won’t understand how much ground Arkansas has to make up. Even with the extra money, the state is already well behind Gov. Mike Huckabee’s worthy four-year plan to match the regional average in college spending. Ed Franklin, who heads the state’s association of two-year colleges, is also reluctant to criticize. This session was certainly better than last. “It was a good session, not a great session,” he said. Two-year schools will get a 7.7 percent increase in money from the state next year. That sounds good until you understand that the increase only puts the two-year schools slightly ahead of the amount, in actual dollars, the state provided four years ago, in 2001. And they have far more students today. Says Franklin: “We made progress, but the reality is that we didn’t make as much progress as we needed.” The tragedy is that, as a relatively small state, Arkansas could have made big steps for relatively small investments. The need is huge. Franklin figures that Arkansas enrolls 20,000 fewer college students than other similarly sized states. But legislators were determined not to make additional investments through taxes. They just shuffled deck chairs and one-time money. (Noted: Shifting some federal money into a scholarship fund for older students was a pure positive for community colleges and people who need better job training.) A rational funding formula for higher education is a good thing. But any formula starved of money won’t sufficiently nourish our colleges. Two years from now, there’ll be no surplus to support even the halfway measures adopted by this legislature. This session was little more than a free lunch for a term-limited legislature whose members tend to view issues in personal political terms. Volunteer fire departments are more important than college faculty pay. With the long view in such short supply, the session just past was likely a prologue for worse two years from now, higher education included.

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