Bruce Johnson, the president of the Inter-University Council of Ohio, recently shared with state lawmakers a rarely told story about higher education. He reminded that from 2008 to 2018, Ohio had the lowest average rate of tuition growth for public universities among all states. According to calculations by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, Ohio experienced an increase of 5 percent in in-state tuition and fees. The next lowest state, Missouri, saw an increase of 9.7 percent, or nearly twice the Ohio rate.
Tuition and fees rose 28.7 percent in Michigan, and 38.8 percent in Kentucky. So this is a good thing, especially with Ohio long ranking near the bottom in college affordability.
That isn’t all Johnson said. In so many words, he explained to lawmakers at a hearing of the House higher education subcommittee that it is one thing to limit tuition increases, as the legislature has mandated. It is another to invest adequately in public universities and colleges.
On that investment count, Ohio has fallen far short. As Johnson noted, the state “has remained well below the national average” in spending $1,581 on a full-time equivalent basis. That helps shed light on events at the University of Akron last week. The trustees approved a 1.5 percent increase in tuition and a 3 percent increase in room and dining costs. At the same time, the university faces a $45 million structural deficit. It is offering voluntary buyouts to faculty and leaving open vacant positions, among other savings measures.
To be sure, that deficit reflects poor decision-making by university trustees and administrators. Yet the Statehouse has made its own large contribution to the problem. UA would be in much better financial shape if total state spending on higher education had not declined 20 percent in inflation-adjusted dollars the past decade. Johnson pointed out that the proposed two-year state budget of Gov. Mike DeWine calls for general revenue spending of $2.77 billion on higher education in 2021. That sum is still below the amount in 2009, $2.79 billion.
Give the governor credit for proposing sharp increases in the Ohio College Opportunity Grant, the state’s primary program for need-based aid to college students. He wants to see a jump from the current $101 million a year to $148 million by the second year of the biennium. Still, in 2008, the program stood at $223 million annually.
This assistance is crucial if the state is going to increase steadily its collective level of education and thus its competitiveness. That goes, in particular, for those students with promise who cannot afford to finish their degree or certificate because they lack the financial means.
Johnson expressed appreciation for the increase. He also urged the obvious: Get back to where the funding once was. He welcomed, too, the governor’s proposed 1 percent annual increases in the state share of instruction, the leading funding mechanism for higher education. Again, he rightly made the case for doing better — first, through a 2 percent increase (an additional $41 million for the biennium) to keep pace with inflation and second, a long-term plan for reaching the national average for spending on a per full-time equivalent basis.
That requires new funding. Yet the state has options, notably in the more than $9 billion a year in tax breaks it doles each year, many dating back decades without the question asked: Do they serve a worthy purpose? Even a sliver of such a sum would aid public universities and colleges, and thus the state. The higher education community has squeezed its budgets. Now it is time for lawmakers to do their part by investing in Ohioans.