President Meehan asked us to share with you the following editorial written
by V. Gordon Moulton, President of the University of South Alabama.
The recent announcement of proration levels for higher education that would approach 12 percent will create irreparable harm if unchecked. Already, observers of public higher education nationwide are speculating that we may be returning to an elitist system driven by ever-increasing tuition rates that will leave many unable to pay.
Given the history of higher education in Alabama, that would be tragic. The post-war era of 1866 through the early part of the 20th century was a time of little opportunity and hope for most Southerners. Education beyond the lower grades was rare, except for the privileged few.
Things didn't improve a lot as a largely rural economy dependent on agriculture and human sweat struggled through the Depression and saw little relief until the post-war boom of World War II. Southern children were trapped in a system that sentenced them to relive the lives of their parents.
However, something was being born that was destined to be the single most important factor in making our country the true land of opportunity: The development of the American public education system was to become the most successful experiment ever undertaken by a government and its people.
Little by little, a tax structure was developed that provided an opportunity for parents to see their children earn high school diplomas and savor the hope for a better life. The advent of World War II and the GI Bill provided the spark and belief that we could and would create a better society through a better-educated work force.
Public universities existed in small numbers throughout the South, and most were poorly supported by the individual states. Access was still largely restricted to the children of landowners, doctors, lawyers and successful business entrepreneurs.
The South suffered from the lack of a college-educated work force and a racially divided system of schools and work opportunity. Industries that moved in were focused on cheap labor, cheap land and water resources, and freedom to operate as they chose.
But the vision of a New South was being born, though it was slow. Parents and their children moved from the expectation of a high school education to the realization that more was necessary, and they demanded a higher education system that was accessible and affordable.
Alabama responded through a populist governor who saw the political benefits of taking education to the people. Junior colleges and trade schools were built throughout the state, along with four-year institutions in Mobile, Birmingham and Huntsville. This provided an opportunity for the thousands of working-class citizens living in the population centers of the state to further their education without leaving home.
The University of South Alabama was chartered in 1963 with an immediate influx of opportunity and education-starved Alabamians. During the early years, the tuition was reasonable and state support, though meager, was adequate. Since then, more than 46,000 young people and working adults have completed their degrees and joined the ranks of the professional work force. These graduates include many first-generation college graduates.
The future of people like these and, indeed, the future of Alabama is now threatened by the crisis in education funding.
In Mobile County, we find ourselves with the largest K-12 school system in the state with nearly the lowest funding per student of any system in the state. We read daily news stories of the struggle to buy basic supplies for the classrooms and the possibility of teacher layoffs.
Meanwhile, a sudden downturn in the economy, coupled with the state's antiquated and regressive tax system, has created a funding crisis with potentially dangerous consequences. Indeed, the coupling has once again pushed our state toward the destructive tendency to pit K-12 and higher education against each other in competition for already scarce educational resources. It is imperative that we avoid dealing with this shortfall by resorting to drastic, one-sided cuts in the state's higher education system.
Public universities receive funds from two primary sources -- tuition and state support. If institutions hope to maintain any reasonable level of quality, they must increase tuition in the face of declining state support. This trend would forever damage the hope of Alabamians to better themselves, and it could destroy the economic future of our state.
In the last ten years, the University of South Alabama has seen per-student state funding decline from approximately 80 percent of the average for the 14 Southern states to less than 53 percent at the beginning of this year. During that same period of time, tuition nationwide for state-supported institutions has grown at an average rate of 6.5 percent per year. That is almost double the rate of inflation for other goods and services during that time.
The states that are thriving are those which long ago determined that their futures depended on a strong public educational system, from kindergarten through graduate school. They are thriving for a number of reasons:
Unfortunately, the rhetoric associated with funding battles in Montgomery would have people believe that Alabama's colleges and universities are adequately funded. They are not.
Alabama colleges and universities are funded, on average, at just 60.2 percent of the average funding received by colleges and universities in the 14 Southeastern states. While other Southeastern states provided five-year funding increases to higher education of 6.1 percent on average (10.4 percent in Florida, 8.2 percent in Mississippi and 6.8 percent in Georgia), Alabama public colleges and universities received only 1.3 percent.
Not surprisingly, in the 10-year period ending in 1998, Alabama's employment growth rate of 24 percent was among the lowest in our region, trailing Georgia at 33 percent, Florida at 31 percent, and Tennessee at 28 percent.
Why does Alabama trail its regional peers in higher education funding? One critical factor is that unlike most states, Alabama's state government bears a large portion of the K-12 educational cost when compared to the local effort. The state of Alabama must take up the slack, putting a strain on available resources for higher education.
This problem will persist until local school districts are willing to provide a greater base of support for their own schools through a uniform minimum ad valorem tax rate. In most cases, the cost of this, when spread across the entire population, would be nominal -- just a few dollars per month per household.
Alabama must invest in higher education for our children's future -- foremost because higher education pays. For instance, in Mobile, the University of South Alabama generates five additional dollars for each dollar it receives in state funding.
The health of the University of South Alabama and the Mobile community are intertwined. Through its contributions of teaching, research, service, health care, and the generation and support of new and existing industry, the university wants to work with the community to help shape the economy and the quality of life that we desire for our future.
To achieve this, the university needs a basic level of fair funding from the state.
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