Colleges across the country are facing layoffs, program cuts, tuition hikes and possible campus closings as they brace for major reductions in state funding -- again.
The leaders of Penn State University are wondering if they'll have to close some of their branch campuses next year, and more than 400 faculty positions may be on the chopping block.
In California, class sizes are swelling while class offerings are shrinking. One community college district in San Diego has cut 90 percent of its summer courses. And in Washington, universities are increasing the enrollment of out-of-state students, who pay about three times as much as in-state students, while considering trimming resident enrollment.
Colleges and universities, which can levy revenue through tuition hikes, are a primary target for cuts when states are in a budget bind.
"This year is going to be the hardest year on record," said Dan Hurley, director of state relations and policy analysis for the American Association of State Colleges and Universities, which has 420 member institutions. "Any new revenue at the state level is being gobbled up by Medicaid and K-12 education," he said, and much of the federal stimulus money expires this year, setting up the perfect storm for higher education.
At least 28 states, including Pennsylvania, California, Texas, Nevada and Washington, are talking about reducing aid to higher education for next fiscal year.
Years of cuts have led to a sort of restructuring among colleges and universities, as they eliminate and consolidate programs, trim administrative positions, impose layoffs and bulk up faculty workloads. But now they're wondering if they've already cut all they can with a scalpel and if they'll have to dig in with a knife.
"For two decades, we've been cutting our budget," said Lisa Powers, a spokeswoman for Penn State. "Now everyone is starting to feel as if we're down to the bone."
At UC Davis, some lecture class capacities have doubled to 400 students. Science labs that had 12 students three years ago now have 20, and there are fewer sections of introductory foreign language courses because "we just don't have the money to offer them," said Bob Powell, a professor and chair of the Department of Chemical Engineering and Materials Science and chair of the Davis division of the Academic Senate.
Some faculty are entertaining lucrative job offers from private universities that pay 40 or 50 percent more than UC Davis, which hasn't provided across-the-board raises in four years, Powell said. "If that trickle turns into a river, we've got a big problem," he said.
The situation will only worsen under California Gov. Jerry Brown's budget for next year, which slashes funding to the California State University and University of California systems by $500 million each -- a decrease of 18 percent for CSU and 16 percent for the UC system. It also cuts $400 million from the state's expansive network of community colleges.
Worse yet, those cuts could double if an extension of temporary statewide tax increases isn't approved. After meeting with California college presidents in April, Brown vowed to mobilize support for the extension, telling reporters, "The university is an engine of wealth creation. Stripping it of its professors and its research in the way that an all-cuts budget would require is unacceptable."