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The state of Indiana spends more than $30,000 per year on the upkeep of each prisoner in its penal system. For each Hoosier student at a state college or university, we invest about $6,500 a year.
This jarring comparison makes us wonder what the historians of future eras will say about our civilization. Neither I nor any other responsible educator would argue for a reduction in spending in the prison system or any other essential state function. And yet we are forced to worry about the priorities of a society that chooses to invest so little in the people upon whom the very future depends. The men and women in our colleges now will be the leaders of a not-very-distant tomorrow. They will be the skilled people who stimulate Indiana business to grow and who help attract new industry to our state. The prosperity we are enjoying right now will not be sustained if we don't make a commitment to keeping a strong and progressive higher education system in place.
During a good part of a storm-ridden January, members of my staff and I spent a significant portion of our time meeting with various state officials to discuss the future of higher education in Indiana. As I write this, the General Assembly is preparing to consider a biennial budget that will determine how Purdue and its sister institutions will complete the 20th century. Although both the economy and the state treasury are healthy, we again face an uphill battle to achieve a level of funding that meets even the basic needs of the institutions and -- more important -- their students.
Following hearings in December, the Higher Education Commission recommended that the seven state-assisted colleges and universities receive an increase of 5.1 percent in their general operating budgets. While this amount is less than the institutions have proposed, it is not unreasonable and would have been a good point from which to begin budget discussions. However, the state budget committee subsequently proposed an increase of just over 2 percent, a funding level that would be a distinct setback, especially at a time when competing states are increasing their investments in higher education.
During the first half of the 1990s, our state went through a period of reduced revenues, brought on by a weak economy. Higher education was asked to bear some of the burden, and it did so willingly. Operating appropriations for Purdue's West Lafayette campus were essentially flat during that period. In order to meet the challenges of inflation, unfunded federal mandates, and other unavoidable cost increases, the University made significant internal reallocations, cutting our supply and expense budgets by more than $4 million, leaving vacant positions unfilled, and ultimately eliminating permanently nearly 300 jobs in the University system.
Our students also shouldered some of the load in the form of fee increases that were higher than the inflation rate. In the case of out-of-state students (who pay fees that are more than triple the in-state rate), the increases were high enough to price Purdue out of the market for many applicants who wanted to enroll here.
The situation improved in 1995 when a rejuvenated economy increased state revenues, and universities received appropriations that recognized inflation. However, none of the lost ground was recovered, and it probably never will be.
Currently, we are in a robust and growing economy, and Indiana's treasury enjoys one of the largest surpluses among the fifty states. We have both the ability and ample justification to increase our commitment to higher education. Best of all, a modest investment can make a tremendous difference. The additional cost of raising the operating budgets for all seven higher education institutions from the Budget Committee's recommendation to the Higher Education Commission's proposal is $27 million in the first year and $50 million in the second year of the 1997-99 biennium. These amounts are small increments in the context of an $8 billion state budget.
We have the resources. The question is whether we have the resolve and the courage to do what is necessary to make our higher education system truly excellent.
Steven C. Beering
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