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The Journal Gazette

  • Bradley

Wednesday, March 16, 2016 7:52 pm

Fund erosion is a threat to college quality

The Indiana General Assembly and the state’s public universities share a unique partnership. While the former determines how much money the latter will receive, the universities’ work in educating Hoosiers is a key factor in how much revenue ultimately is available for legislators to distribute. Their graduates largely represent the state’s workforce and its tax base.

That symbiotic relationship will be put to the test as the legislature writes a two-year state budget in the next few months. University officials shouldn’t hesitate to remind the legislators that tuition rates, enrollment demographics, graduation rates and more are tied to the amount of their state appropriations.

The share of state support in university budgets continues to decline. At IPFW, for example, state support as a share of the university’s operating budget has fallen from 73 percent in 1975-76 to less than 40 percent last year.  At Indiana State University, the proportion of the university’s budget supported by the state has declined from 77 percent in 1989-90 to less than 50percent today, according to President Dan Bradley.

"Our funding since 2007 has gone down like a rock," Bradley said in a recent interview. "I think we’re heading for a real major problem if we don’t do something to address this. It’s a chronic issue. Over time, it will be crippling."

Figures from the State Higher Education Executive Officers Association support the ISU president’s claim. Since 2008, Indiana’s per-student appropriation for its public universities has fallen by 13.5 percent, from $5,132 per student to $4,442. In addition, Gov. Mike Pence’s administration has placed further pressure on universities, demanding funding cuts to help build the state’s reserves.

To their credit, some lawmakers seem to understand the connection between declining state support and tuition increases. In a meeting at IPFW in August, Senate Budget Committee chairman Luke Kenley, R-Noblesville, said he was concerned that major cuts to university funding would prompt the schools to seek more money from students.

That certainly has been one effect. Another, particularly at the flagship Indiana and Purdue campuses, has been to enroll more students from abroad and from out of state. Paying full tuition rates, they help subsidize costs for Indiana students receiving in-state tuition.

In a sort of can’t-win scenario, IU and Purdue are catching heat from lawmakers who complain they aren’t serving enough students from Indiana. Forty-three percent of IU-Bloomington’s freshman class this year come from overseas or out of state; 44 percent of Purdue’s undergraduate enrollment is international students or from outside Indiana.

"I’m concerned," Kenley told the Associated Press. "Both of those universities, since their inception, were started for the benefit of Indiana (residents) and Indiana students."

IPFW and other regional campuses serve primarily Indiana students. Less than 5 percent of IPFW’s fall 2013 undergraduate enrollment was from out of state. Still, it’s wrong to fault the Bloomington and West Lafayette campuses for recruiting outside Indiana. Aside from the tuition support, Indiana students benefit from the experience of living and learning with students from varied backgrounds.

The greater threat to Hoosier students is a general erosion in the quality of Indiana’s state universities. That is the implied consequence of a continued decline in state funding.