It's one thing for Youngstown State University to share Ohio's economic pain, but it's quite another for the open admissions institution of higher learning to be targeted for major surgery. Rewarding Kent State University, for example, at the expense of Youngstown State is bad public policy and could threaten the stability of the state's system of universities and colleges.
While the Ohio Board of Regents insists that YSU is not being singled out for a decrease in state funding -- the reduction would be over and above the 6 percent across-the-board cut imposed on all 13 four-year universities and colleges -- the fact remains that the loss of an additional $2.7 million would be a major blow to YSU's rebuilding efforts.
We are well aware that the board of regents isn't to blame. The Republican-led General Assembly and Republican Gov. Bob Taft slashed funding for higher education by $121 million as part of their budget balancing plan. Politics -- statewide offices are on the ballot this year -- caused the Republicans to avoid any substantive discussion about increasing state revenues. The GOP is also banking on the national economy turning around in the near future, thereby improving Ohio's prospects.
But the decrease in state funding for higher education means that the Buckeye State will continue to lag behind most of the nation in terms of public support for universities and colleges. In 1998, Ohio was ranked 41st, up from dead last in 1970. However, that isn't the only cause for concern about the state's ability to compete in today's global economy. In 2000, only 20.6 percent of the population had at least a bachelor's degree, a slight improvement from the 17 percent in 1990. As for Ohio's ranking in this category: 39th in 2000 and 1990.
Lawmakers in Columbus are well aware of this reality, yet the Republicans continue to treat higher education like a stepchild when allocating public dollars.
No one is arguing that the current fiscal crisis isn't real, but when institutions such as YSU are made to suffer to the extent that they are, we believe the governor and lawmakers have a responsibility to reassess their strategy.
Likewise, we would urge the board of regents to consider the ramifications of slashing more than $2 million from Youngstown State's allocation. It isn't an amount that can be easily absorbed within the existing budget. As for the contention that the university can make up the loss either by tightening its belt or boosting revenue through a tuition increase, it is worth noting that a special performance audit conducted by Ohio Auditor Jim Petro's office concluded that there is very little fat in YSU's operating budget.
On the issue of tuition, students have already been notified that they will be paying 8.9 percent more in the fall to make up for the $3 million cut in state allocations built into the 2002-03 budget.
There is a reality that the decision-makers in Columbus seem to ignore about the Mahoning Valley: the per capita income is lower than in much of the state, which means that parents of students attending YSU, or in many cases the students themselves, cannot afford to keep paying higher and higher tuition. At some point, the university will price itself out of the market. That point isn't far away.
Indeed, more than half of YSU's $111 million general fund budget is funded through student tuition. Only 46 percent comes from the state. The board of regents might quibble over instructional vs. non-instructional spending, but the fact remains that the state is not making a major investment in the institution.
Add to the mix the on-going labor talks with two of the largest unions on campus, and what you have is a no-win situation for YSU President David Sweet and the board of trustees.
For at least a decade, we have urged the governor, legislative leaders and the Ohio Board of Regents to place YSU and other open admission, bachelor-level universities in a separate category when calculating the amount of state funding they should receive. But that's an issue for the future.
Of greater urgency is the potential loss of $2.7 million. Community and political leaders in the Valley should join Dr. Sweet in urging the regents to work with all the colleges and universities in an effort to prevent the kind of fiscal disruption that is bound to occur. Make no mistake about it, the loss of revenue will have a negative effect on YSU's campaign to increase enrollment and improve its retention rate.