The heifer was groaning, her belly heaving. In her last contraction, she had pushed out the front legs of her baby calf. Then her labor had stalled.
Nick Slater, a college senior, squatted in the straw beside the Holstein. He picked up a chain wrapped around the calf’s emerging legs. Gently, he began to tug. “You’re almost there, girl,” he cooed. “C’mon, babe.” One final pull and the calf was born.
“Shake his head,” barn manager Cece Hadaway instructed Slater. “Get those eyes blinking. That’s right.”
Generations of students at Iowa State University have learned the science and the sweat of animal husbandry while tending 375 cows in the dairy barn on the edge of campus. The students milk, mix feed, muck out stalls, even artificially inseminate heifers.
“I don’t think any of what we do out here can be learned in a classroom,” Slater said.
But the dairy barn is shutting down. Iowa State, one of the nation’s top agricultural schools, can no longer afford to run its century-old teaching farm.
Many other public universities across the nation are struggling as well.
Though nearly all have increased tuition, and some have capped enrollment, administrators at state schools from Michigan to Hawaii say they are desperately short of money. They have canceled subscriptions to academic journals, dismantled sports teams, left faculty posts unfilled.
Now, with deep frustration, they are slashing course offerings and closing hands-on learning centers like the dairy barn.
In a recent survey of its members, the National Assn. of State Universities and Land Grant Colleges found roughly 20% of state systems made cuts this year that directly affect undergraduate academics. Many of the rest managed to maintain the curriculum only by sacrificing other services -- reducing library hours, cutting student counseling and restricting purchases of new lab equipment.
Critics say it’s about time to start trimming college programs; they blame the budget crisis on a mad rush to provide everything to every student, from advanced Portuguese to golf-course simulators in the gym.
A few academics also have embraced the chance to refocus their priorities. After cutting four majors, including a popular program in exercise science, “we are a somewhat narrower institution, but what’s left of the university is very strong,” said Harvey Perlman, chancellor of the University of Nebraska at Lincoln.
Others worry that they are narrowing choices for students too much: “One of the features of a great university is that you should have a chance to take a seminar with the world’s leading expert in James Joyce, or read Dante in Italian. But we have had to close more than 200 courses -- and we’re just at the beginning of this process,” said Mary Anne Fitzpatrick, deputy dean of the University of Wisconsin’s College of Letters and Science.
California’s two public university systems have so far avoided widespread cuts in the curriculum, in part because they increased undergraduate fees 10% to 15% last winter and raised them another 30% this summer. A few campuses, however, are scaling back their academic offerings.
Cal State Fresno, for instance, scratched 50 classes exploring subjects from race relations to animal lactation. The result: Even as they pay more for their education, students are finding it “much, much, much more difficult to get out in four years” because they can’t enroll in the classes they need for graduation, said Neil Gibson, the student government president.
With near unanimity, college administrators blame state legislators for the cuts.
Funding of public universities has been sharply reduced in state after state in recent years, as lawmakers grapple with their own budget crises.
“In the 1970s and ‘80s, higher education was one of the top three policy priorities for both state and federal government. I’m not even sure we’re in the top 20 anymore,” said Dick Roberts, assistant vice president of the University of Arizona.
Public colleges in states as diverse as South Carolina, Ohio and Colorado now get more of their funding from tuition than from taxpayers, a dramatic shift that makes many academics uneasy. A handful of public institutions, including the University of Vermont and Penn State, receive less than 10% of their operating budget from the state treasury. More than half -- 56% -- count on taxpayers for less than 40% of their funding.
“Put it this way: Thirty years ago, the state of Texas funded 85 cents of every dollar we spent on our academic mission. Today, the state funds 34 cents on the dollar,” said Kevin Hegarty, chief financial officer for the University of Texas at Austin.
Amid the grumbling, some educational analysts suggest the cutbacks may be for the best.
The price of a college education has been rising steeply for years, even after factoring in inflation. In the last decade, average tuition and fees climbed 38% faster than consumer prices overall, according to the College Board, a nonprofit association of educational institutions.
Many students do get scholarships and grants, so their actual costs are lower than the “sticker price” of tuition. Still, some policy analysts suggest that universities are overdue for reform. In the current crisis, they see a chance for administrators to ask hard questions about their school’s mission.
The University of Missouri at Rolla is a highly regarded engineering school. So why does it need to offer a degree in English? Cal State Fresno is well known for its agricultural programs. Will its mission suffer without Chinese language classes?
Which is more important as a public goal: to subsidize a professor’s research into telescope optics, or to offer undergraduates smaller classes in organic chemistry?
Are taxpayers, or students, well served when a top professor teaches Psychology 101 in a standing-room-only lecture hall? Or would the public good be met better -- and more cheaply -- by an online course, supplemented with weekly discussions led by graduate students?
And do public colleges really need to spend millions on amenities such as rock-climbing walls, giant hot tubs and water slides? In an effort to attract the best students, public schools throughout the country are building posh recreation centers and residence halls at prices that can top $100 million. Some were launched before the budget crisis hit. Others are funded by student fees approved through campus referendums.
Still, given the cuts in academic offerings, “some of this is indefensible,” said Travis Reindl of the American Assn. of State Colleges and Universities.
“Universities have bought into a paradigm where increased cost equals increased quality. The system is based on prestige, and prestige means spending more dollars per student,” said Joni Finney, vice president of the National Center for Public Policy and Education. “We’ve got to learn how to do this in a very different way. We need to educate students more efficiently.”
To prod administrators into making such reforms, Rep. Howard P. “Buck” McKeon, a Republican from Santa Clarita, plans to introduce a bill that would strip federal funds from any college that raises tuition too sharply.
Without such incentive, McKeon said in exasperation, “they don’t even want to talk” about cutting costs.
McKeon’s proposal has drawn criticism from public policy experts on the left and the right. College lobbyists are working hard to kill it, arguing that schools need the flexibility to raise tuition when state legislators cut their funding.
“We are at the tipping point. Any further reductions are really going to start having an impact on quality,” said Steven A. Olsen, vice chancellor for finance at UCLA, which expects a 5% cut in state funds next year.
Facing the threat of additional cuts in state appropriations, several public colleges already have begun to consider alternative types of funding.
Perhaps the most innovative approach is in Florida, where college administrators are trying to negotiate a contract with taxpayers. Administrators want the state to commit to a certain level of funding each year. In return, the universities would pledge to meet specific performance standards, such as placing a high percentage of graduates in jobs, or winning patents on several professors’ inventions. If they fail to achieve their goals, the state could dock their funds.
Administrators hope that the negotiations will force a public discussion about priorities -- and perhaps encourage each institution to focus on its strength, rather than trying to be all things to all students.
“We tend to have mission creep at universities,” said Terry Hickey, provost of the University of Central Florida. “This would add clarity to our decision-making.”
Miami University in Ohio has come up with quite a different way to snag public attention: Starting next fall it will raise tuition for state residents from $8,353 to $18,103 a year, the same price charged nonresidents. All Ohio residents will then get an automatic scholarship equivalent to the amount the state spends on higher education, per student.
If state funding is flush, the scholarship might be worth $8,000. If the state is strapped, the students might get just $2,000. Parents would know exactly how much of their children’s “public” education is really paid for by the public. “We hope this will generate more support among taxpayers for higher education,” President James Garland said.
Back at Iowa State, in the dairy barn that soon faces demolition, Slater, the college senior, nudged the newborn calf over to its mother, watching approvingly as she lifted her head to nuzzle. Slater knows these animals well. Along with coming to the dairy barn for classes, he works the 4 a.m. milking shift to earn money for tuition -- which has shot up 40% in the last two years.
Agriculture students at Iowa State will still get a chance to work with cows several times a semester; the university owns another dairy barn about half an hour’s drive away. But they will no longer be able to gain the practical experience that Slater has earned in years of rising before dawn to milk, of stopping by between classes on a golden fall afternoon to help a heifer give birth.
“It’s kind of sad,” Hadaway said, “when you have a state based on agriculture and it can’t even afford to keep the university dairy barn.”
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Closing the gap
Public universities around the nation, faced with sharply reduced state funding, have been forced to cut academic programs. Some trim classes across the board; some cancel mostly small, upper-level seminars; others eliminate entire departments. Here are a few of their strategies:
Cal State Fresno: Canceled 50 classes this semester, including seven in agricultural business. Put on hold plans to launch a master’s degree program in forensic science.
* Colorado State University: Eliminated 52 faculty and 220 staff positions. Cut student advisor program. Eliminated classes in four fields, including agricultural engineering. Increased size of freshmen seminars from fewer than 20 students to at least 30.
* University of Texas at Austin: Cut 200 faculty and 500 staff positions. Increased class sizes, and reduced the number of sections for introductory classes, such as beginning chemistry and English.
* University of Nebraska at Lincoln: Closed teacher training lab. Eliminated majors in exercise science, Portuguese and industrial systems technology. Eliminated graduate program in museum studies.
* University of South Carolina: Trimmed faculty positions, increased class sizes and eliminated some electives in all majors. In the history department, lecture surveys once limited to 250 students have 340. Seminars once limited to 25 students have 45.
* University of Wisconsin-Madison: Eliminated more than 200 courses, including dozens of upper-level seminars, writing tutorials and foreign language electives. Expanded enrollment in some lectures to 570 students. Cut 90 administrative slots and 60 faculty positions.
Los Angeles Times