Higher education in Ohio must become a priority

No one reviewing Ohio's $44.9 billion budget for the next two years can come away with the impression that higher education matters to the Republican-dominated General Assembly. It doesn't -- if the funding levels for 2002 and 2003 are any indication.
But that isn't the only problem confronting the state's universities and colleges. The GOP leaders in the legislature who developed the biennium budget and slashed $200 million from what Republican Gov. Bob Taft had initially proposed, have a cockeyed view of things. In their world, removing tuition caps more than makes up for the funding shortfalls.
They obviously are in need of a reality check. Currently, Ohio's two-year colleges rank sixth in the nation in terms of tuition, while the four-year institutions rank 11th. With the tuition increases that are inevitable given the decrease in funding for higher education from the previous biennium, Ohio will move up in the rankings. That is not a good thing. Making universities and colleges more expensive to attend isn't the way to sell higher education in a state where only 17 percent of its residents have college degrees.
Per capita spending: And when the fact that Ohio already ranks 40th nationally in per capita state spending on universities and colleges is added to the mix, it becomes clear that there is a disconnect between how the decision-makers in Columbus view things and the reality of today's work place.
In order to attract or retain high-tech jobs, the state must have an educated work force. Even the manufacturing sector demands a higher level of education in the individuals it will hire.
The Ohio Board of Regents, which governs the state's universities and colleges, developed what it called the "Ohio Plan." It was designed to make higher education the economic engine for the state. The $300 million the regents sought would have been used to develop new technologies and new jobs for Ohio. Gov. Taft offered to make a $40 million down payment on that initiative, but the GOP legislative leaders simply erased that item from the budget.
"The fundamental flaw [in the budgetary process] is that the economic influence of a better educated workforce got lost in the mix," says Mike Brown, spokesman for the board of regents.
Forums: Given the myopia of the Republicans in the General Assembly, we urge the governor to host a series of higher education forums around the state. The stakeholders, most especially the business community and the parents of college-age students, must be heard.
It is not enough for Taft to say that a grass-roots campaign is necessary to persuade the legislature to adequately fund the state's universities and colleges. The governor of the state must take the lead in making higher education a priority in Ohio.

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