Over the past decade, the state of Ohio has been chipping steadily away at funding for its colleges and universities. The process began during the gubernatorial administration of George Voinovich, who decided in the 1990s that higher education had gotten too "fat" and administered an axe instead of a diet.
In any case, the chipping has continued unabated into the 21st century. In just the past four years, Ohio has added nearly 50,000 more college students, but overall state funding hasn't increased, according to the board of regents.
Next year and the year after, if Gov. Bob Taft has his way, flat-line funding of $1.56 billion annually will be rationed among the state's 13 universities, two separate medical colleges, 15 community colleges, and eight technical colleges.
The winners will be two-year schools, like Owens Community College, which is in line for a 5.1 percent funding increase in the coming fiscal year. The losers will be four-year schools like the University of Toledo, set for a 3.5 percent cut, and Bowling Green State University, line-itemed for 5 percent less state money. The Medical College of Ohio also is slated for a cut.
The mantra from Columbus is that more money must go to the fastest growing institutions. Those would be most of the two-year schools and a few four-year schools with academic programs greatest in demand, like sciences and engineering.
But this enrollment-driven formula is sucking the life out of UT, BGSU, and many of their four-year brethren, a conclusion we arrive at not because they are local schools but because we are truly concerned for the future of higher education in this state.
Over the long haul, flat funding is making it impossible for the four-year schools to maintain broad programs of instruction that qualify them as true centers of learning and degree-granting universities worthy of the name.
Community college education is fine, as far as it goes. But in an era in which four years or more of post-secondary instruction is as necessary as a high school diploma was a couple of generations ago, two-year schools cannot provide the quality learning necessary if Ohioans are to compete in the job market of the future.
At the same time, the steady upward spiral of tuition costs cannot continue indefinitely or many promising Ohio youngsters will be priced out of a college education. Some already are finding that it is cheaper to attend an out-of-state school, which will only accelerate the brain drain.
Yes, education is expensive, especially at the post-secondary level, until you consider the alternative, which is coming to pass as the United States falls further behind many other countries in the world in knowledge and research.
Foreign students, once crucial to financial support for many graduate programs in Ohio, are coming here in fewer numbers because quality university educations increasingly are available in their home countries.
Every two years, there is at least some talk in the General Assembly about whether Ohio's stable of public colleges and universities cost more than the state can afford. But the talk rarely goes any further. Budgets are proposed, appropriations made, and life goes on as the schools make adjustments necessary to cope with the latest increases or, more likely, cuts.
Rather than continue this mindless race toward the bottom, it is time for a broad debate on the future of higher education.
A patient inquiry probably would discover that the state is spreading its support thin at too many schools; that it isn't sound policy to offer duplicate programs at both two-year and four-year colleges, then pick winners and losers through the budget process, and that academic programs could be consolidated on certain campuses to save money, as some college officials already agree.
Such problems cannot be solved if only parochial interests are considered, the legislature's traditional approach. It will take lawmakers who harbor real concern for the future of higher education. Is anyone in Columbus listening?