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The squeeze on college funding

A SIGN of our Romanesque times was in the Sunday newspapers. There were so many last-second victories by teams in the Associated Press top 25 that The New York Times put on its front sports page photos of triumphs by Michigan, Southern California, Wisconsin, Alabama, and West Virginia and called them ‘‘drama majors.’’ Next to the headline was a quote by Wisconsin coach Barry Alvarez, who said, ‘‘When you think you’ve seen it all, you haven’t seen it all.’’

You really realize you haven’t seen it all when you read in the same paper a story titled ‘‘At Public Universities, Warnings of Privatization.’’

While our drama majors on the gridiron kept fans on edge in stadiums full with 111,249 people at Michigan, 105,122 at Ohio State, and between 80,000 and 92,000 fans at Notre Dame, Texas, and Louisiana State, the public support for our nation’s colleges continues to crumble.

A report by the State Higher Education Executive Officers, the 51-year-old nonprofit association that focuses on the relationship between states and their colleges, found that state funding for higher education is at its lowest levels in 25 years. According to the report, state funding per student in 2004 was $5,721. In constant dollars, that represents a decline from $6,094 in 1981.

A worse short-term trend has occurred over the last four years. With the boom of the 1990s, per-student spending went up to $6,874 in 2001. The drop in the last three years has been nearly 17 percent.

Put another way in a study by the Urban Institute, states gave $21 billion less in 2000 to their public institutions of higher learning than they would have had they maintained their higher spending levels of 1977. A lot of the blame for the declining state contributions to colleges has been the rapid increase in Medicaid costs.

Everyone knows who has shouldered the shortfall: college students and their parents. In just the last four years, college tuition has risen at triple the rate of general consumer spending. In 1991, tuition made up 26 percent of state educational revenues. It now make up 36 percent, according to State Higher Education Executive Officers. Even though American college enrollment continues to grow overall from 8.1 million in 1991 to 9.9 million today, the Urban Institute has calculated that the rapid rise in tuition and the decline of state funding has cost colleges even more students, dropping college enrollment among high school graduates to 67 percent instead of 71 percent under 1977 spending levels.

Knowing they can only squeeze but so much more cash out of the wallets of families, college administrators worry about depending increasingly on private donations that may ultimately restrict the research and liberal arts missions of our schools. The State Higher Education Executive Officers report voices some cautious optimism for a long-term recovery. ‘‘Some of have suggested that states are abandoning their historical commitment to public higher education, expecting parents and students to pay a larger share of the cost. ... this conclusion is premature and superficial.’’

But administrators worry because, as the report says, ‘‘No standard exists for the adequacy of either states’ tax policies or higher public education investments.’’

The fretting, though, rings hollow when the same colleges that struggle to keep school affordable for students and maintain a quality faculty are the same ones that have football programs where the coaches are now making the salaries of professional athletes and way more than the college presidents. The head coaches of most of the nation’s top football teams range from the high six digits to $2.4 million a year. The top teams routinely spend over an additional million a year on their assistant coaches.

After his team’s thrilling victory over Notre Dame, Southern California head coach Pete Carroll proclaimed that it was ‘‘a wonderful day for college football. It’s something we’ll never forget. For an energy junkie like me, it can’t get any better than that. To be challenged to the last tick of the clock is really special for me.’’

It would be a more wonderful and unforgettable day when universities and state and federal governments turn their energies toward the challenge of preserving the dream of college for the average American youth. In that game, the clock ticks away while the rising cost sacks the student for a loss.

Derrick Z. Jackson’s e-mail address is

© Copyright 2005 Globe Newspaper Company.

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