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State colleges face calls for radical reform

Budget crunch prompts calls for changes from privatization to student vouchers.

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Who should pay for higher education - states, or students and their families?

It's a question that's being raised anew for millions of Americans as governors, legislators, and college administrators confront the worst state budget crunch since World War II.

Many universities are trying the usual tricks to save money: raising tuition, putting off replacing the campus boiler, cutting degree programs. But this time the squeeze on higher education is severe enough that some states and universities are considering far more fundamental reforms.

For example:

• In Texas, momentum is building for deregulating tuition in exchange for lower appropriations. In the proposal, students from families making less than $41,000 a year would automatically qualify for free tuition at a state school.

• In Wisconsin and South Carolina, colleges have floated their own quasi-privatization proposals. If they're going to be cut off from so much funding, they say, they should at least have the freedom to govern themselves.

• In Massachusetts, Gov. Mitt Romney (R) recently proposed a sweeping university restructuring. His plan would consolidate several colleges, spin off the University of Massachusetts' Amherst campus as the system's flagship school, and set up a regional system in which each UMass campus would work closely with community colleges and employers. Three colleges would be essentially privatized, Tuition at all would rise significantly. In a politically tinged twist, the plan would also eliminate the office of UMass president, now held by a former Democratic politician with close ties in the legislature.

• In Colorado, legislators are proposing a voucher system for the state's colleges and universities. Instead of appropriating money to the schools, the state would give each undergraduate $4,000 a year to spend at the public institution they choose. While not directly linked to Colorado's dire fiscal situation, the plan has gained favor among university officials because of its potential to free the schools from tuition-hiking restrictions.

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