Higher education as an endangered resource

Posted Jan. 14, 2011, at 7:46 p.m.

Maine is not alone. A recent issue of the Chronicle of Higher Education reports that Nevada, Ohio, Pennsylvania, South Carolina and Wisconsin have all ushered in tea party-backed Republican governors who have pledged not to raise taxes despite facing enormous budget shortfalls that equal or surpass what each of these states spend on higher education.

In Maine’s case, the state spent $264 million on higher education in fiscal year 2010, while its projected revenue shortfall for next year is over $400 million. Newly installed Gov. Paul LePage has promised not to raise taxes but instead says he will reduce government expenditures in order to address the revenue shortfall.

In practice, that means cutting support for Maine public higher education. The effect will be higher tuition, higher student fees, fewer faculty, fewer academic programs and fewer Maine young people going to one of the campuses in the University of Maine System.

Already Maine ranks last among New England states for the percentage of its population with a college degree, and this sorry fact portends becoming an embarrassing trend if state support for our public universities decreases.

With or without the influence of the tea party, the politically popular position for any elected official today is to promise not to raise taxes and to cut government spending. As a mantra, it is magical: Voters are taxpayers and they hate taxes because they see so little immediate return on their investment in the state’s coffers. Roads remain bad, services spotty and education iffy, while unemployment and underemployment remain high even as government workers continue to receive health and pension benefits that do little but inspire envy or provoke anger from the many who work in the private sector.

If you are a parent of a school-age child, you tolerate high local property taxes because they fund your child’s school. If, however, either or both parents did not attend college — which describes a majority of Mainers — and they decide that their children too do not need a college education, then higher taxes going to the General Fund, which supports public higher education, may seem wasteful and unnecessary.

But if you are a low- or middle-income family with little in personal savings but want your children to attend a public university, you may well conclude that the state is shirking its responsibility by underfunding higher education and passing the increased cost of attending college on to the “consumer.”

Accordingly, a college education is regarded by many Maine residents as a private benefit rather than a public good. Yes, K-12 public education is a citizen’s right, because it is deemed a public good, but college, for some reason, is too often treated as if it were a commodity to be purchased by whoever is willing and able to pay the asking price.

That type of thinking is outdated in today’s world, where a minimum of a college education is required for personal and societal advancement.

It is the outdated mentality of college as a private benefit that permits politicians to make draconian cuts to higher education with political impunity, with the effect that fewer Maine students will be able to afford a college education, thereby stifling economic development and perpetuating Maine’s endless economic malaise. Higher education, after all, promotes economic development and the most economically prosperous and secure regions of the nation are those areas populated by a high percentage of college-educated citizens.

If cutting the size of government — reducing government expenditures to deal with debt rather than raising taxes — also means reducing taxpayer support for public higher education, then Mr. LePage will be appropriately blamed a generation from now when Maine’s economy continues to languish.

What if higher taxes, specifically to support our Maine universities, were made optional? What if our Maine tax forms included, along with the chickadee checkoff, a “UMS checkoff,” a line that allowed individuals to increase their own state taxes specifically to support Maine’s public universities? And why not then permit that same individual who increases his or her own taxes to support our public universities to take a charitable tax deduction on their federal returns in the following year? At the height of its popularity, the chickadee checkoff was supported by 6 percent of Maine taxpayers. One caveat: The LePage administration must commit to permit all such additional revenue earmarked by the taxpayer for public higher education to be used as an add-on and not to justify a decrease to the state’s appropriation for higher education by whatever amount is raised by a UMS checkoff.

Public higher education, after all, could become as “endangered” as our wildlife and our natural resources if we do not take immediate and decisive steps to preserve affordable public higher education as a public good.

Roger Bowen is president emeritus of the State University of New York at New Paltz and a resident of Prospect Harbor.

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