Recent UI budget cuts highlight longtime state defunding


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How are we going to pay for this?

It’s a question that is increasingly difficult for legislators and University of Iowa officials to answer and, at the same time, that is on the minds of a growing number of students and their families.

But the funding problem isn’t one that has developed overnight or one that the economic downturn alone spurred. The state’s higher-education system has seen funds diverted from it for some time.

And the effect of this continued neglect is beginning to surface full-force.

“You see increases in class sizes, which is counterproductive, in my opinion,” said Rep. Roger Wendt, D-Sioux City, the chairman of the House Education Committee, when asked about the detrimental effects of cuts to education funding. “You also see fewer offerings; instead of a university offering two sections, it might only offer one, which is also counterproductive, in my opinion.”

A look at past state budgets tells the sobering tale: Since the 1999-2000 school year, state appropriations to the UI have declined 5 percent. The 5 percent decline may seem diminutive, but, when coupled with larger economic disruptions and rising tuition costs, it has proven immensely detrimental. That 5 percent drop has meant millions of dollars in lost funding, even as the cost of living has risen. Over the same time, tuition went from composing 30 percent of the UI’s budget to 51 percent.

If the continued slicing of education budgets set the stage for disaster, the latest string of massive cutbacks has been the depressing show, leaving the UI’s shortcomings exposed. And it has highlighted another point: Recession cuts are unavoidable. But when an area such as higher education is perennially underfunded, already painful cuts become draconian.

It is of the utmost importance for state legislators and state universities to work together to build realistic, sustainable solutions to some of the most ruinous of these problems. Most importantly, legislators must pledge to increase state funding for higher education once the recession has subsided.

In addition, any serious discussion must address these key issues to clear the way for continued success of Iowa’s education system:

• State funding versus private funding: Should UI students and their families pay for the bulk of education costs? What are the implications of having a public university increasingly funded by private dollars?

• Costly graduate-school programs: In a time in which postgraduate work is increasingly vital to finding a job, is the rising cost of graduate school forcing students to prematurely enter the workforce? What effect does this have on students, universities, and society writ large?

• Over-saturation of administrators: Is the UI’s ratio of faculty-to-administrators in the right range? What effect does a disproportionately high number of administrators have on a university’s quality of education?

• Increasing recruitment of out-of-state and international students: While geographical diversity is important, what effect does the recruitment of out-of-state and international students (at least partially for financial reasons) have on in-state students? How does it affect the state’s economy and the accessibility of Iowa high-school students to higher education?

The Editorial Board will tackle each of these issues throughout the week. Our goal is to offer insight into the problems stemming from the UI’s funding shortage and spark much-needed discourse. You will also hear from other actors in this ongoing debate, as they share their thoughts in guest opinions throughout the week.

We encourage the Legislature to take these matters as a serious indication of the concerns of students and work toward resolving these issues, reasserting higher education as a top priority for the state. As we’ll outline in the upcoming week, doing otherwise could be calamitous.

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