What’s happening at YSU?

In the past 45 years, a lot has happened to the financial base of YSU — but mostly it has shifted dramatically from the state to the student. In the late ’60s tuition was approximately $1,500 per year, and while the student paid 25 percent, the state contributed 75 percent percent ($4,500) of the total cost education ($6,000 per student). In today’s world, that same student tuition is $7,700, 80 percent of the total ($9,600 per student) and the state contribution is $1,900 (or 20 percent).

You see, in the old days state thinking was along the lines that a larger public good came from supporting higher education, such as an infrastructure to support economic and cultural needs in the Valley.

However, in today’s way of thinking, only the degree recipients directly benefit from such “advanced” qualifications, so they should be the ones to bear the brunt of the cost. To be fair, this has not happened only in Ohio, but in almost all public higher ed institutions across the country. It is called “disinvestment,” as the states shift their ever-shrinking tax dollars (particularly lately) into other sectors of constitutional responsibility.

A community

We used to think of YSU as a community of students, faculty and administrators serving the higher education needs of the student body and (incidentally) the extended infrastructure. The politically appointed board took responsibility for working with these parties in a strategic manner to achieve a sensible balance of interests, while at the same time honoring YSU’s tradition of keeping costs low (and accessibility high) to respect the interests of those in our service area who can’t afford the usually higher costs somewhere else.

As the financing paradigm shifted from past to the present, and the money to operate YSU became increasingly scarce, through no fault of the university itself, each of these groups has become more protective of their own interests. Even worse, they are often suspicious that the other parties are willing to put their own goals ahead of those of the institution we are all an intrinsic part of.

This is not done in any venal way, since each has a principled base to rationalize its actions. The students understandably find it increasingly difficult to pick up $15,000 worth of student debt while entering a problematic job market — something students and their parents didn’t have to face until 10 or 15 years ago.

Teaching loads

The faculty still find it difficult to accept that they are the ones to increase already historically high teaching loads (relative to our sister state universities), at near the lower end of salary scale compared to the same data base, while at the same time assuming the additional mantel of an “urban research” university — by simply adding additional research and scholarship responsibilities (that is, more grants and papers).

Some among the board and administrators perhaps see YSU predominantly as the shining university on the hill where one can get a less expensive, but quality higher education. Others may see us in the new way as not only such a higher education center, but also a real economic driver for our region. Now add to this bifurcation: less money to work with plus a new community college partly designed to provide the remedial background needed by many new students to YSU, who haven’t yet developed a strong enough foundation to actually take on university level work, and you have a perfect formula for institutional friction.

Enrollment decline

Naturally this new college would be expected to have an overall erosive effect on YSU’s enrollment, perhaps dropping it from say 15,000 to 12,000 (as happened in the Cochran years), but at the same time raising the quality of our students so that more will graduate in the long run. This is the basis of the new state funding formula (based on the number of actual graduations, not, as it was until recently, based on the number of students enrolled). Both of these transitions — education to education plus research, and a partially self-inflicted anticipated enrollment decline — occur at a time of severely diminished resources. Is it any surprise that these are stressful times? We should realize this.

Nearing retirement after working 45 years on the faculty, and surviving six presidents, may I simply say that if the above parties cannot understand and respect the perspectives of their institutional partners, then everyone’s interest will be sacrificed as we turn inwardly to minimize the goring of our own ox. Nobody can wring blood from a rock, but if we don’t at least make an effort to see the others’ points of view, then surely we can’t expect to survive this current fiscal storm. Even then, it’s far from certain we can actually right the ship of state. Can we talk? President anyone?

Howard Mettee of Poland is a professor of chemistry at Youngstown State University.