Education matters

Ohio’s public universities and colleges must operate more efficiently, but adequate state support remains essential


GOV. John Kasich is enlisting former Ohio State University president E. Gordon Gee to propose ways to ensure that Ohio’s public colleges and universities deliver “greater value and quality to those they serve.” Here’s one suggestion: State government could invest adequately in higher education.

The liberal advocacy group Policy Matters Ohio reports that the state will spend 14 percent less in general revenue on higher education in fiscal 2014-15 than it did in fiscal 2008-09 — $4.7 billion versus $5.5 billion, not adjusted for inflation.

Meanwhile, from 2008 to 2012, enrollment increased 10 percent across the state university system. Columbus has placed limits on tuition increases even as it has reduced its own contributions, yet tuition continues to rise.

Among other things, the state has cut in half its funding of Ohio College Opportunity Grants (OCOG) for needy students. Community college students no longer have access to OCOG grants. Full-time, in-state students at Owens Community College pay 86 percent more in tuition now than they did a decade ago.

Students at four-year state schools fare little better: Tuition for in-state, full-time undergraduate students at the University of Toledo rose 53 percent from fiscal 2003 to fiscal 2012. At Bowling Green State University, the increase was 49 percent.

Asked recently why tuition has gone up so much, Mr. Gee responded: “Shame on us. We raised it because we could.”

Among options that Mr. Gee’s study group, the Ohio Board of Regents, and public universities and colleges ought to consider: greater use of high-quality online courses, outsourcing some noninstructional services to private companies — and reducing tuition.

Mr. Gee is seeking help from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which, he said, has found his quest intriguing. Last year, the foundation announced $9 million in grants for postsecondary education, including $1 million to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to develop a computer science course in a “flipped classroom,” where students watch lectures online and do their homework in class.

Mr. Gee headed two previous higher-education initiatives that have proved useful. One encouraged state colleges and universities to work together, rather than in competition, on proposing capital projects. The other created a formula that ties state funding to student graduation rates, rather than enrollment.

For the current initiative, Mr. Gee plans to meet with educators, students, and citizens across the state and to take comments on a state Web site. The notion that higher education is a generator of job creation and economic growth is a powerful argument.

In Ohio, people with a bachelor’s degree or more have an unemployment rate of 3.6 percent, while those who attended college but did not graduate have a jobless rate of 6.8 percent. Those with a high-school diploma, but no more, have an 8.1 percent unemployment rate; the rate among dropouts is 16.2 percent.

Ohio needs to deliver public education more efficiently and with greater innovation, and it’s proper to look for ways to do that. But the state also needs to restore its support of higher education in general and funding for college grants for needy students in particular. Efficiency and funding adequacy are both essential.