By David J. Jordan
Partner, Stoel Rives
It is a foolish farmer who eats his seed corn in tough times. Nothing will be left to plant for a future harvest. Utah students are the seed corn of our economy. If we do not do our very best to teach and train them now, they will not be equipped to create and fill the careers of tomorrow; and we will all be the poorer for it.
In his State of the State address, Governor Gary Herbert called on the Legislature to hold education harmless from further budget cuts. That challenge presents the Legislature with some difficult and critical choices.
Without increasing user fees on tobacco or motor fuel, and barring significantly improved revenue projections, something has to be cut. Should legislators make across-the-board cuts to the entire state budget or should they fund education at the expense of other programs and projects?
The right answer is to follow the governor’s charge to fund education.
The 17 percent cuts that have already been absorbed in the last budget cycle come at a time when enrollments are up both in public and higher education. This is a natural result of both population growth and increased participation. It is a predictable pattern that when the job market tightens, more students seek higher education to make themselves more employable. Consequently, over 12,000 new students enrolled in college this past fall compared to the previous year. In total, enrollments are up by 17 percent over the past two years.
With simultaneous budget cuts and growing enrollments, university and college presidents are facing a perfect storm. While trying to serve more with less, they have already been forced to:
- Eliminate over 900 employee positions, including faculty
- Limit class availability to students because classes are full
- Increase student/advisor ratios
- Reduce salaries and benefits
- Delay infrastructure repairs/upgrades, including building closures
If the additional four percent across-the-board cuts to higher education being debated by the Legislature are enacted, they would have a crippling impact on students and the state including:
- Access to higher education by students statewide will be limited because Institutions at capacity will have no choice but to begin limiting the number of students who can enroll by imposing enrollment caps.
- All institutions will further eliminate numerous class sections, prolonging students’ time in college as they have difficulty obtaining classes they need to graduate.
- Elimination of academic programs ranging from CTE to baccalaureate to graduate degree programs.
- Larger numbers of students for every academic advisor; without good advice students are less likely to make the best choices in course offerings which can also delay their time to graduation.
- Closure of satellite campuses.
- Prolonging time to graduation delays students’ full entry into the workforce as taxpayers and lessens their ability to provide for their families.
- Elimination of approximately 600-700 full-time positions— mostly through involuntary lay-offs.
- Reducing the number of students trained and educated for the workforce by Utah’s public colleges and universities through enrollment caps.
- Undermining the capacity of our research universities, resulting in negative economic impacts for the state as adequate support for research is lost, reducing competitiveness for research grants which provide thousands of high-paying jobs and the ability to develop technologies that spin-off into new businesses.
If you terminate the faculty and discontinue an educational program, you can’t just turn the spigot back on next year. Once an educational program is dismantled, it takes years to rebuild. In the meantime, the opportunity to teach students in that program and train a work force that builds our economy is lost. If you cram more third graders into an already over-crowded math class because you can’t afford to hire another teacher, you can never give those students back their third grade year.
Our students are the seed corn of our economy. In lean times we must be prudent in our expenditures but we must also be smarter than the foolish farmer. Now is the time to sow the seeds of future economic strength.