Earlier this week University of Utah President Michael Young appeared before a legislative committee considering additional cuts to the higher education budget. Young told committee members that an additional 4% cut to state funding for the U (and the rest of the Utah system) would be akin to "eating our seed corn." "Twenty years from now," he asked, "do we want to have terrific prisons and terrible universities?"
Setting aside the fact that Utah's prisons are about as dismal as prisons in every other state (and that the Department of Corrections faces budget cuts as well), and that systems of higher ed in other states are facing fiscal problems larger than those in Utah, it is worth wondering what Young could have meant when he said that budget cuts would be like "eating the seed corn."
The most literal reading would be that by cutting budgets now, the university will starve in seasons to come. Read more liberally, a short-term solution, like cutting budgets, would push today's problem into the future. The question is whether by either of these readings, Young accurately describes the potential impact of this year's budget cuts.
The answer has to be no, for two reasons. From one perspective, Utah ate the seed corn long ago (or never had any at all). By many measures, the state of Utah already faces an education crisis. Most campuses are full to capacity, first- to second-year retention rates are between 43% (at UVU) to 83% (at the University of Utah) for four-year institutions (these data are from before the economic downturn), and a large portion of high school graduates never go to college at all. While a 4% cut may make things marginally worse, from an access to education perspective, things are already bad.
At the same time, a view from the outside suggests that a budget cut doesn't necessarily doom an institution for the long-term. City, county, and state governments have already sustained such cuts, but we don't hear anyone suggesting that Salt Lake City faces a long, bleak future because of those cuts. Businesses regularly face decreases in income and respond.
So this comes around to a more fundamental question--are institutions of higher education unlike other institutions, in that they cannot adapt to vagaries in funding? If so, why? And, more importantly, is greater funding necessary in order not just to maintain the status quo, but to actually reach those thousands of students who don't have access to higher ed in Utah?