Education is an investment. That’s true both for students and bill-paying parents – and states. And with increased investment comes a rightful expectation of greater returns.
Georgia won’t see the best possible dividends if it continues its recession-induced underinvestment in its colleges and universities. Now that the University System of Georgia has set tuition for next year and the General Assembly has passed the state budget, the pattern of pinching way too many pennies is easy to see.
Yes, Georgia will spend more than $1 billion annually on higher education next year, but we’re still well below the amount needed to help prepare the way toward real prosperity in our state.
Times remain tough even with a slow crawl toward economic recovery. We all know that. Tax receipts have shown some improvement in recent months, but remain well below levels of just a few years ago. Employee furloughs, budget cuts and workforce reductions remain the order of the day in state and local governments.
That’s the present, rugged reality. What about our future?
Will we best position ourselves for tomorrow’s opportunities by limping along in survival mode year after year?
Or will we choose a course of building, however slowly, upon our best and most certain bet for tomorrow – our children? We believe this path is the best choice to help preserve, and create, good jobs and productive citizens.
Doing so won’t be easy. No reasonable steward of tax money would argue that now’s the time for an all-out, fiscally irresponsible push to significantly boost higher ed spending. Neither can we afford to continue starving over time a college system we’ve spent decades improving.
A reasonable middle ground would be to confine cuts to single-digit percentages. A more-aggressive posture would be to hold flat the system’s budget, which would amount to a slight decrease when inflation is factored in.
Admittedly, education is not cheap. State appropriations to the university system are $1.74 billion for the fiscal year starting July 1. That’s a reduction of $208 million, or nearly 11 percent, from fiscal 2011.
That’s only the budgetary top line. Fiscal 2012 will mark the first time that state schools won’t see funding to compensate for enrollment growth. That news comes even as laid-off workers and other new students increase campus populations in hopes of bettering their chances for success.
Not accounting for more students will save the state $177 million next year. All told, funding for the University System falls short by $346 million in the coming year.
In our view, that amounts to a substandard investment in Georgia’s children and our economy. Adequately supporting schools seems more likely to provide a future dividend than some of the ad hoc tax breaks the state Legislature handed out during the recent session.
It is more than fair to expect the state’s colleges and universities to make significant spending cuts during these trying times. Even so, the pattern of reductions that has chopped about $1 billion from college appropriations in the past decade won’t serve this jobs-hungry state well.
Education is a key that can unlock real prosperity for students and communities alike. A less-educated citizenry earns less, thereby paying less in taxes that, over time, would reimburse state coffers for dollars targeted to post-high-school education.
We’re hopeful that the imminent naming of a new University System chancellor will improve its sometimes-strained relationship with the General Assembly. In times like these, the two entities need to better understand each other.
The considerable legislative and academic skills of Chancellor-apparent Henry “Hank” Huckaby should prove valuable in dealing with a sometimes-cranky Legislature that does raise legitimate questions about what their appropriations are actually paying for.
All told, we need the strongest college system possible to prepare students for a post-recovery world. The adage of lifting yourself by your bootstraps is often touted in this age and this state. Collegians are trying to do just that.
In supporting their efforts, we will help them best prepare for our shared future.