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Friday, December 19, 2014
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Published: Sunday, 8/10/2014 - Updated: 4 months ago

COMMENTARY

Higher education — and voters — vs. Ohio politicians

BY DAVID KUSHMA
BLADE EDITOR
Kushma Kushma
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Ohio voters understand the value of a strong, efficient system of state universities and colleges. A large majority of us want state government to spend more money to help maintain such a system.

So when will the politicians who supposedly represent our interests in Columbus — the ones who elevate tax cuts for the richest Ohioans above the preservation of essential public services — finally get the message? What remains of this year’s election campaign is as good a time as any.

A new poll commissioned by the Inter-University Council of Ohio, an association of the state’s 13 public universities, shows that — as usual — Ohioans are way ahead of the Statehouse mob.

The survey of 800 likely voters, a scientifically accurate sample of the state’s overall electorate, found that more than two-thirds consider funding for public higher education a priority in the state budget. Nearly three-fifths say state aid to public colleges and universities should increase.

Support for such spending is greater in northwest Ohio — the home of the University of Toledo and Bowling Green State University — than in any other part of the state. But the poll shows that the sentiment crosses regional, party, and gender lines, and includes voters in households where no one attends college or plans to do so. Unlike the pols, voters are willing to place the future of the state ahead of immediate self-interest.

Despite such expressions of popular support, Ohio remains among the bottom 10 states in aid per student to higher education — about $1,500 less than the national average. State funding of public universities and colleges has dropped by 18 percent over the past five years, and funding for student financial aid has been cut in half, even though Ohio’s economy ostensibly is recovering from the Great Recession.

The poll makes clear that voters want that money restored. But the same elected officials in the Republican-controlled Statehouse who don’t think higher education is worth subsidizing adequately also impose limits on how much universities and colleges can raise tuition on their own. Between 2008 and 2013, average tuition at Ohio’s public universities rose less than in any state other than Maryland.

Demands up, aid down

That sounds like a good thing. Yet even as demands on public higher education are growing, the schools’ ability to meet them is ever more challenged. The worst case: more student loan debt, fewer and larger classes, employee layoffs, and less academic and career counseling.

“The cost of higher education has gone up at the same time that funding has gone down,” Mary Ellen Mazey, the president of BGSU, told me last week. She visited The Blade with interim UT president Nagi Naganathan and Bruce Johnson, the president of the Inter-University Council, to talk about the council’s voter poll and its implications for state policy.

Ms. Mazey notes that state aid now accounts for 22 percent of her university’s budget, down from about two-thirds at its peak (the figures for UT are similar, Mr. Naganathan says). Four out of five BGSU students get scholarships or other financial aid. About one-third of BGSU students are the first in their family to attend college, she says, and often face special financial burdens.

Mr. Naganathan says UT is doing its part to hold costs down, having frozen tuition in three of the past seven years and cut administrative expenses by $9 million. He adds that UT and BGSU are collaborating on a growing number of academic and regional initiatives.

He describes the “value proposition” of higher education: “How do we get people to believe that high-quality education is an investment rather than an expense?” The poll suggests Ohioans already embrace that proposition.

Contrary to the bleats of the Tea Party, three out of five Ohio voters do not think they are overtaxed by the state. Only public schools and job creation are higher state budget priorities for voters than higher education, according to the poll.

More than nine out of 10 voters want their children or grandchildren to go to college. A similar share of voters wants Ohio’s public colleges and universities to be among the nation’s best. They agree that the teaching and research provided by our institutions of higher learning help Ohio’s economy grow and improve its quality of life.

Voters realize that higher education is an investment with a great return, both individually and for the state. Today’s typical graduate from a four-year college will earn $830,000 more during his or her career than the typical high school graduate, a recent study by the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco concludes. College graduates also are one-third less likely to be unemployed.

Our public universities are largely responsible for preparing the skilled workers we’ll need to keep the state’s economy globally competitive and innovative. But Ohio isn’t making enough of an investment in these institutions, and it isn’t getting the return.

Talent gap

In 2012, about 37 percent of Ohio adults held degrees from two-year or four-year colleges and universities (the statewide rate for four-year schools alone is about 26 percent; in Toledo, it’s 17 percent). The state has set a goal of increasing the share of degree holders to 60 percent by 2025, since more than three out of five Ohio jobs are likely to require some sort of post-secondary education by then.

We aren’t close to getting on track to meet that timetable. If current trends continue, by 2025 barely 43 percent of Ohioans will have higher-education degrees — not much more than today. That talent gap is a long-term prescription for a second-rate state.

“It’s time to reinvest in our future,” says Mr. Johnson of the Inter-University Council. “The priority [among voters] for public higher education is as high as it’s ever been. The state has the right to ask us all the hard questions, but it needs to be a full partner.”

The university presidents are preparing a plan for improved state funding and academic outcomes that will reflect the public priorities expressed in the poll. The council expects to present it to the governor and General Assembly elected this November before they start drafting the next two-year state budget.

But the debate doesn’t have to, and shouldn’t, wait until then. In the dozen weeks before Election Day, Ohio’s budget-chopping governor and incumbent lawmakers — and their challengers — need to be pressed on what they will do to close the gap between our state’s level of educational attainment and its need for many more well-educated workers and citizens. Specifically, what are they ready to spend?

Ohioans know what matters, whether the issue is higher education or fair tax policy or schools or economic growth. We need to elect a governor and legislature whose actions — not just their stump speeches — show that they share, and will carry out, our values.

David Kushma is editor of The Blade.

Contact him at: dkushma@theblade.com or on Twitter @dkushma1



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