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States Turn Generous Eye to Universities

Public institutions see best funding in years - along with new demands for accountability

After a decade of chopping funds for public colleges, states are deciding their public universities really are worth more - and they're putting their money where their rhetoric has been.

With many states awash in budget surpluses, educators are busy requesting - and receiving - record funding for more teachers, repairs to crumbling buildings, and up-to-date technology.

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Funding is "the best it has been in the past decade for state budgets and higher education funding," says John Hammang of the American Association of State Colleges and Universities in Washington. Aided by a gusher of tax revenues, states are now running an average budget surplus of more than 6 percent, he says.

But unlike past transitions from tough periods to good times, the current flow of state funding comes with strings tightly attached.

Instead of simply reporting how money is spent, universities now must report the rate at which students are completing courses at various colleges and getting degrees - and whether they are getting jobs afterward - to name a few benchmarks. Programs with low attendance are at risk of extinction.

The influx of cash and pressure for accountability come at a critical time. With tuitions, room, and board topping $30,000 at some private schools, public-college tuitions of $2,000 to $4,000 are looking like a great bargain to a larger pool of students.

Interest in state alma maters is growing, with enrollment in two- and four-year public colleges projected to grow from about 11 million today to about 12 million in 2003, the US Department of Education reports.

The West leads the way

Nowhere is this growth more evident than in the western United States, where a demographic bulge of immigrants and high school seniors has produced a steady rise in community college enrollment and a pickup in four-year college enrollment.

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"The demand for enrollment in our state universities and community colleges is steady and growing," says Jack Lunsford, chairman of the Maricopa Community Colleges in Maricopa County Arizona.

With Phoenix at its heart, Maricopa's community-college enrollment (currently about 40,000 students) is growing 1 to 2 percent a year - even though community-college enrollment usually falls in good economic times, Mr. Lunsford says.

Yet until recently the system suffered for lack of cash to pay additional faculty and had to cut back math, science, and English programs despite recent funding boosts.

Now the state's three universities are asking for a 10 percent increase and its community colleges are looking for a 45 percent jump.

Public-university systems across the country are experiencing similar success receiving record increases in funding despite tough competition for surplus funds and promised tax cuts.

Nationwide, state appropriations for higher education grew to a record $49.4 billion for fiscal 1997-98, according to a recent study by the Center for Higher Education at Illinois State University. That is part of a historic two-year, 11.5 percent jump in state higher-education funding.

Louisiana, for example, has hefty budget surpluses after a period of deep deficits and 12 cuts in 10 years to the higher-education budget. So far, the Pelican State has boosted higher-education budgets by $132 million in two years. This year, the college system is requesting $1 billion more, which would represent a 43 percent increase in the state's higher-ed budget. Professors' salaries will rise, as will funds for technology and building repairs.

"We went through some real bad times," says Lawrence Tremblay, associate commissioner of the Louisiana Board of Regents. "So now, in good times, we are trying to recoup."

California, Florida, Illinois, and others have also seen generous increases in funding for state colleges. Nevada led the nation with a 30.1 percent gain. Only Alaska and Hawaii saw a net reduction for the two-year period.

But in many states accountability is the key without which big higher-ed increases simply will not happen, says Edward Hines, a professor at Illinois State University in Normal, Ill., and author of a recent report on state higher-education appropriations.

Report cards

The shift toward accountability began about six years ago, when states began to require "report cards" on higher education, he says. Today at least 27 states - including Massachusetts, Colorado, Texas, Florida, California, Wisconsin, and New Jersey - have laws mandating rigorous accounting by public colleges.

Funding hikes are unlikely in these states unless universities pass the acid accountability test. Partly this is because public ire is still hot over rising college tuitions - and politicians are in no mood to plunk down cash without performance guarantees.

In South Carolina, for example, a requested 28 percent boost for higher education may go through mainly because the state will be first in the nation next year to introduce "accountability funding," with a 37-point checklist.

"We have to demonstrate better accountability," says Rayburn Barton, executive director of the South Carolina Commission on Higher Education. "The system we're putting in will do that."

But public colleges and universities may not get everything they want. They have some serious rivals in this election year - tax cuts.

Even in Arizona, which is running a budget surplus of about $500 million, Lunsford doesn't think the requested budget will be an easy pitch. He cites a recently promised tax cut and court order to better fund K-12 education that may swallow the surplus.

By contrast, Steven Uhlfelder, chairman of the Florida Board of Regents, says his state is focused on improving higher education this year. Despite some big increases in recent years, public colleges are asking for and may get an additional $300 million.

"We feel like this session [of the legislature] will offer more focus on higher education," he says. "It's been a long time coming."

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