Dollars and education

May 10, 2012 By Steven R. Peck

When the colleges are under the knife, the public pain is widespread

Sometimes sports fans notice a prized university recruit deciding to go to college elsewhere if the coach who recruited him or her resigns or is fired.

Suddenly, this isn't what that volleyball player or swimmer had signed on for, and the deal is off.

They don't get as much attention, but similar worries confront colleges when funding cutbacks are announced. Students who have applied, matriculated or enrolled at a school might have a change of heart if it's apparent that the school is about to undergo a big budget cut.

Just such a problem struck the enormous University of California system a few years ago when the State of California began chopping extremities from the university budget at the height of that state's fiscal crisis.

An enrollment decline was evident, and there were fewer applications as financial aid opportunities shrank. In turn, the university's prized diversity profile was diminished, which can hurt when it's time to apply for federal and private grant money. It can take time for the dominoes to stop falling.

No such erosion has been obvious at Central Wyoming College yet as far as we know, but the news that CWC, Wyoming's other community colleges, and the University of Wyoming have been told to prepare for an 8 percent decrease in state funding is troubling news.

Imagine if your family budget suddenly had to be trimmed by 8 percent, or your small business's spending plan. That's real money, with real consequences. Many households and businesses know the experience first-hand.

The schools do what any of us would do. The most common approach is program cuts rather than across-the-board reductions. Often it's the recent additions that are eliminated, under the old "last in, first out" model known only too well in business. That's an extra sting because the new programs often have been added with fanfare.

Higher education's appeal is built on the foundation of opportunity, so funding cuts hit hard. Opportunity can be eroded as budgets shrink.

These are unwelcome developments for the community colleges, which are so important to the areas they serve. When the colleges that are closest to the people face the knife, the people feel the pain.

Things will be tough all over, of course, if the dreaded revenue shortfall plays out statewide. It won't be just the colleges and university that will be pinched. But the ripples of sudden funding reductions in education are detected in every direction, and Wyoming ought to do its best to ensure the colleges can continue their wide-reaching missions.

-- Steven R. Peck

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