In the middle of the nineteenth century, federal and state governments throughout America began to accept the idea that they should help underwrite the operating and building costs of universities, in order to make higher education affordable and accessible to greater numbers of people. Two intertwined objectives lay behind this idea:
These are elegantly simple concepts, and they were successful beyond the most optimistic projections. Enhanced by a series of historic events -- the passage of the Morrill Land Grant Act, the conversion from an agrarian to an industrial economy, the GI Bill after World War II, and the post-war technological revolution -- state universities became a linchpin of American progress. As they grew in size and quality, they produced large numbers of graduates who became highly productive in the work force and successful as entrepreneurs. Early in their history, these institutions also began to contribute to the development of new knowledge through research, first in agriculture, later in science, medicine, industry, and other fields.
Purdue and its Big Ten counterparts are the archetype state universities. By any standard, these heartland institutions have returned the states' investments in them many times over. They have helped shape the present, and they are destined to define the future.
And yet, in recent years, the states' support for higher education has been eroding. This trend has affected virtually every institution. Purdue's annual state appropriations during the 1990s have failed to keep pace with inflation and in some years have been essentially flat. We have dealt with the shortfall in a variety of ways: We have tried to raise more money from private donors; we have redoubled our efforts to attract support for research; we have made extensive reallocations in order to curtail spending; and we have raised fees, asking our students to pay a larger share of the cost of their education. Meanwhile, the state's share has declined. Currently, the state appropriation accounts for only about 20 percent of the budget for the West Lafayette campus. However, that portion is crucial, because it remains the foundation upon which the rest of the budget is built.
As the 1997 legislative process began, Purdue and Indiana's six other state-supported institutions were optimistic that this would be a good budget year. The state's strong and growing economy has produced a large budget surplus. There seemed to be widespread acceptance among state officials that the needs of higher education should be addressed seriously after several lean years. The seven institutions agreed on a proposal that asked the General Assembly for an inflation-based increase in appropriations, plus an additional two percent in recurring funding to be used for quality improvements at each college or university. Teaching technology was a priority on most campuses. The Higher Education Commission endorsed the main points of the proposal.
The budget that ultimately passed during the legislature's special session has been portrayed as a good one for higher education, but this is not an accurate picture. Although the need for funding classroom technology was acknowledged with an allocation of about half the amount requested, the appropriation was made on a non-recurring basis.
Certainly this money can and will be put to good use by the colleges and universities, but it does not become part of the budget base. It cannot be used to fund ongoing programs or to meet the personnel costs and other recurring expenses of keeping modern computer and audio-visual equipment operating and up to date. In effect, the state budget increases higher education operating budgets at less than the inflation rate, so the institutions will lose ground in the race for quality -- and a race is exactly what it is.
Universities are people-intensive enterprises. Our neighboring states and others around the nation are also experiencing strong economies. They have begun to increase higher education funding, and they will become more competitive in attracting the upper echelon of faculty members who make the difference in institutional quality. This will take its toll on Purdue and other Indiana institutions, a process that already has begun.
It is a profound disappointment that at a time when the need is clear and the resources to move forward are available, we have chosen not to make higher education a priority. If a second-rate higher education system becomes a reality for Indiana in the twenty-first century, its seeds will have been sown in the last decade of the twentieth.
On May 31, Purdue's Board of Trustees approved a budget plan that includes fee increases of 4 percent for students from Indiana and 5 percent for those from out of state, beginning with the fall semester. We also will begin charging a technology fee to students on the West Lafayette campus. The new fee -- $8 per semester -- is intended to address a small part of the shortfall in the state appropriation. Technology fees already are being charged at several other Indiana institutions, including Purdue regional campuses, and by most of the Big Ten universities.
There was one bright spot in the state's higher education budget. The General Assembly approved almost full funding for buildings and other capital expenses. Also included, for the first time, was recognition of the institutions' infrastructure maintenance in the repair and rehabilitation formula. This is a major step in protecting the investment in the campuses.
Commencement activities at all Purdue campuses and Statewide Technology sites went very well this spring. Ceremonies at the end of summer and in December will bring the total number of 1997 Purdue graduates to more than 10,000.
Steven C. Beering