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We can’t just cut our way out of the budget deficit, take 2

Some cuts cost a lot more than they purport to save.

Public colleges and universities in Texas are absorbing a 5 percent cut in state funding by laying off employees, deferring repairs, scaling back travel and finding other savings. But the prospect of an additional reduction of 10 percent in the next two-year budget has some higher education leaders questioning the state’s commitment to boosting enrollment.

“It couldn’t come at a worse time, because we’re experiencing record double-digit enrollment growth,” said Rey García, president of the Texas Association of Community Colleges. “If the state’s not going to pay for the cost of enrollment growth, we may not be able to grow, and we may have to abandon the state’s goal of more access to higher education.”

[…]

Higher education constitutes only about 15 percent of the state’s current $87 billion general revenue fund — the portion of the budget over which the Legislature has control — but it is especially vulnerable in tight fiscal times. The reason: Several other high-dollar slices of the budget pie, including Medicaid, children’s health insurance, public education and pension contributions, are exempt from cuts.

Higher education is a target not because there is fat to be trimmed but because it’s something that can be cut, unlike large swaths of the budget. But you could zero out higher education funding and you’d still only close $13 billion of the $18 billion projected gap – yes, Governor Perry, every credible person in the state believes the gap will be $18 billion.

Higher Education Commissioner Raymund Paredes, the coordinating board’s top administrator, said in a letter to Perry and legislative leaders earlier this year that financial aid is integral to “Closing the Gaps by 2015.”

That is the state’s set of goals for increasing enrollment, especially for minority students, to bring Texas up to par with other states. The goals include boosting enrollment by 630,000 students, to 1.7 million, from 2000 to 2015.

“Financial aid is a critical tool for recruiting, retaining and graduating the large majority of the students we need to attract into higher education to meet our state goals,” Paredes wrote. “These students come from the poorer segments of our population and financial aid is indispensable.”

You could save yourself hundreds of dollars this year if you stopped running your air conditioner. But you won’t do that, because the pain and suffering you’d inflict would be far greater than the monetary value of the savings you’d see. Texas is both a fast-growing state, and a state with a large number of young people in it, many of whom are minorities and from lower income brackets. We can invest in their future – which is to say, our own future – by ensuring they have a path to a college education and a professional career. Or we can cut them off from all that, severely limiting their earning potential and reducing the state’s overall wealth as well as its attractiveness to businesses. It’s our choice.

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