Budgetary Blues: As the Annual Higher-Education Budget Battles Heat Up, New Challenges Ranging from the Repeal of the Estate Tax to the Internet Pose Bottom Line Problems

Article excerpt

The smell of theatrical grease paint faded, and the roar of crowds that once flocked to the Kansas State University stage every summer was silenced this year when trustees for the institution faced a budget shortfall that current funding could not meet.

After a successful, 25-year run; University Theatre is forgoing its 2001 season to pay off a $60,000 operating deficit. Operators hope to resume productions in 2002.

KSU's woes are symptomatic of the annual plague that descends on the campuses of the nation's private and public institutions every year.

It's budget time, a ritual when administrators, faculty, staff and students briefly join for a wringing-of-hands ceremony in all effort to raise needed funding to finance their programs for the coming year.

This year, though, three new factors may impact the budgetary process: a possible end to tax-saving incentives that encourage donations to schools, the policies of a new president in Washington, and the growing phenomenon of distance learning that could shrink enrollment at some schools.

The funding and tax priorities of the Bush administration could radically alter financial aid, grants and outright financing for higher education. Proposed new tax codes and student performance incentives touted by the administration could substantially change the way public colleges and universities are financed.

The Internet, already a deeply ingrained part of every university and college's infrastructure, also represents a threat to enrollment, some administrators fear. While the Internet has become an integral teaching tool for professors to deliver course material and communicate with students, some institutions are using the distance-learning concept to widen recruiting efforts to attract students. The idea represents a golden opportunity to increase enrollment for some schools. It could potentially also weaken the enrollment of smaller schools that can't compete with more comprehensive programs.

NATIONWIDE WOES

The state of Pennsylvania this year allocated $336 million to finance public education at its 14 four-year state universities and 15 two-year community colleges. Still, faculty, staff members and students from these colleges boarded buses in March to travel to Harrisburg where they pleaded with Gov. Thomas Ridge and the legislature to allocate even more funds for their schools.

In Ladysmith, Wis., the 450-student Mount Senario College was forced to put its president on an unscheduled leave this spring, eliminate several administrative jobs at a school with a staff of just 40, and cut athletic programs because of financial and management difficulties it encountered last year.

In Burlington, Vt., a 75-year-old institution had to face the ultimate budget crisis last fall when trustees at Trinity College voted to close its doors, putting 125 teachers, staff and administrators out of work. Declining enrollment aggravated the fiscal crisis, say officials.

"We hoped to be the exception to the prevailing trend of financial difficulty faced by most small, single-gender, liberal arts colleges without significant endowments," says Trinity President Jacqueline Marie Kieslich.

Edward Connors, chairman of the Trinity Board of Trustees said the decision was unavoidable. "We couldn't ensure a financially sustainable future."

CODE BREAKERS

This year proposed tax code changes might weaken the ability of students to pay for college, or for some institutions that rely on private funds to attract money to finance new or existing programs.

Existing tax codes traditionally aid schools in attracting more students by offering them financial incentives to enroll in programs they otherwise might not pursue.

In a policy statement released in April, the American Association of State Colleges and Universities said these tax incentives are not inclusive enough to help most students who attend public universities today. …