Recession Hits Hard At Nation's Campuses


Yale University, President Bush's alma mater, is $8 million in the red this year and plans faculty cuts of more than 10 percent over the next decade to avoid a $50 million deficit.

And Yale, which boasts Ivy League cachet and deep-pocketed alumni, is doing well comparatively speaking.

The recession is savaging the pride of the U.S. system of education -- its colleges and universities, which depend on tuition charges, state revenue, endowments and government grants to pay professors, buy books and maintain buildings.

"We're in for some tough times," predicts American Council on Education president Robert Atwell, who expects the educational deficits to drag on even if the economy turns up.

At the University of Bridgeport, a $22 million deficit, brought on by shrinking enrollment, was so daunting that school authorities decided that selling the university was the only solution. But when a group affiliated with the controversial Rev. Sun Myung Moon's Unification Church offered $50 million, students and trustees raised cries of alarm and a merger with nearby Sacred Heart University is now in the works.

Demographics fuel the crisis. The number of age 18-22 college students will be down until the late '90s, and declining enrollment is expected to deplete revenues nationwide.

To combat shrinking budgets, tuition has increased to a national peak of over $25,000 a year for some private schools.

But high tuition hurts enrollment, hitting particularly hard at minorities. The huge increase in private school fees has sent tens of thousands of students trying to get into cheaper state schools, creating a drain on state budgets.

In most states, tax dollars are mandated by law for prisons, Medicaid and elementary schools but expenditures for state-funded universities are generally discretionary.

With costs going up in all of those areas, explained Robert Sweeney of the American Association of State Colleges and Universities, "there's no discretion left."

"If you live by tax dollars, you also die by them," said L. Jay Oliva, president of New York University. "The recession and enrollment problems at the same time -- fewer people coming into the college system -- is a double whammy."

Last year state colleges and universities in 30 states had their budgets cut, leading to colleges being shuttered, professors pink-slipped and classes curtailed.

This year, 19 states have slashed allocations for colleges and universities -- some such as Maine by as much as 10 percent -- and nine others expect to wield the knife.

At the University of Maryland College Park, seven programs -- from urban studies to applied design -- were eliminated and the College of Human Ecology was closed.

College Park's president, William E. Kirwan, who juggled $40 million in cuts over a 16-month period, said the $5 million from those programs would be transferred into the university's "core curriculum" -- physical sciences, arts and humanities.

Library hours were cut, student health services reduced -- the infirmary is no longer open 24 hours -- and cultural events such as the world-famous Handel Festival put on hold.

Even the best-known private institutions are feeling the pinch. Harvard has announced the elimination of some 346 staff through early retirement, part of the university's "continuing attempts to control costs," said spokesman Peter Costa.

Yale, the nation's third oldest university, said its planned reductions, which the faculty is loudly protesting, are necessary to maintain salary levels and pay for $1 billion in long-deferred maintenance of aging buildings.

This dire state of affairs means the boast that despite the country's other faults "American higher education is the best in the world" is losing its validity, said U.S. News and World Report magazine.

"After all," said the magazine, "Detroit made the same claim for American-made automobiles."

There are some bright spots.

1991 was "a banner year" for the 41-member United Negro College Fund, which raised $50 million with gifts from such donors as GM, IBM, Exxon and Philip Morris, spokeswoman Adrian Rhodes said.

"Black colleges have always had to operate with very tight budgets. The key is being creative and aggressive," she said.

She said a $10 million matching grant from the Department of Interior that will be used to restore historic buildings on black college campuses was an example of this creativity.

Among elite schools, Princeton, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Northwestern and Emory University reported no budget cuts on the horizon but left open the possibility of tuition increases.

Emory, in suburban Atlanta, has been on a construction and expansionary binge since 1979 when Coca-Cola magnate Robert Woodruff and his brother George gave the school $105 million -- at the time, the largest single gift ever made to a U.S. institution of higher education.

The university also holds a large block of Coca-Cola stock, whose value has rocketed since 1981.

At MIT, where one-third of the graduate students are foreign, "we're watching our pocketbook closely," spokesman Charles Ball said.

"Our most significant concern is the future of government support for research. Our whole education program is into research -- if there's a falloff it would affect us in a number of ways," Ball said.

The pressures on higher education and the conflicting demands for tax dollars will continue throughout the decade, predicts Mr. Atwell of ACE.

"In the late '90s, when we get enrollment pressures from the yuppie puppies, then enrollment pressures can force states to fund colleges and universities again," said Mr. Atwell.

Until then, said Mr. Kirwan, the stellar reputation of U.S. colleges and universities will depend on educators' courage in getting back to basics and on national leadership.

"Fundamental issues about the kind of society we will have in the 21st Century will have to be addressed and resolved," he said. "I'm very concerned whether we will have the wisdom and courage to protect the future of the country by making the difficult investments in education required."

Barbara Novovitch is a reporter for the Reuter news agency.

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