Rep. J.J. Johnson: UD, Harker must recognize budget limitations

 

This column appeared in today's edition of The News Journal

 

By Rep. J.J. Johnson 

In a recent newspaper column, outgoing University of Delaware President Patrick T. Harker raised the important issue of the spiraling cost of college education in America. His description of the tough choices faced by students striving for higher education, and their families, was spot on.

President Harker missed the mark, however, when he laid blame for his institution’s perennial tuition and fee increases at the feet of UD faculty and Delaware taxpayers.

As UD’s administration well knows, Delaware’s annual operating budgets have been close-cut and controversial for the last seven years. During my tenure on the Joint Finance Committee, my colleagues and I have been presented with hard choices. Programs for our state’s poor and their children, health care and services for the elderly and disabled, schools and teachers, police and emergency responders – everything has been on the table in one form or another in the budget cycles since 2008.

The University of Delaware has been part of that and we have kept our commitments to the institution, recognizing the positive impact UD has on our state’s economy and the lives of thousands of Delaware students and families. This fiscal year, UD will receive $113 million of taxpayer money; next year the governor’s draft budget would raise that number to $117 million.

The way I see it, UD is much bigger than our small state, with a reach that extends across the globe through recruitment, research and the renown of its scientists and professors. The university knows it too, as evidenced by the size and growth of its $1.3 billion endowment, which ranks among the largest for public universities in North America, and the efforts undertaken to attract more students from outside Delaware.

With its outward focus and worldwide reach, I find it difficult to understand how UD could realistically expect to rely on Delaware taxpayers to shoulder a greater share of expenses, particularly in light of the state’s persistent budgetary challenges.

President Harker also criticized UD’s dedicated faculty, saying that colleges need to be less “teacher-centric” and more “learner-centric.” This insults the life’s work of many professors, and UD’s faculty has taken offense to those remarks. I’m puzzled as to why President Harker chose to vent these views in a Philadelphia-based newspaper rather than speaking directly to his faculty.

In addition to blaming state government and UD faculty for rising costs, President Harker offered an alternative that I find troubling. He suggested that students and families are looking to for-profit higher education firms as a better option, naming a company that has retained him as an adviser. He fails to mention the storm of controversy that has engulfed for-profit colleges in recent years, including a number of lawsuits and a high-profile federal criminal investigation related to financial aid processes and dubious marketing claims. I’m not inspired to trust this approach to learning.

Students and families need real relief from the out-of-control cost of higher education – solutions that allow them to gain a degree without accruing debts that will hold them back as they strive to enter the workforce and secure their futures in the middle class.

This is a goal the University of Delaware and President Harker obviously share with the General Assembly, and UD has made the effort to find creative ways to offer higher education opportunities for less money, such as its partnership with Delaware Technical & Community College.

But more needs to be done, and though President Harker will be ending his tenure at UD this summer, I encourage his successor to continue to explore ways to make UD a better value for students and families. Look to other public and private institutions across the country, where leaders have found success, for example, when they’ve pledged to keep tuition flat for the entirety of a student’s four-year career.

Instead of blaming the state budget or emulating for-profit models, UD‘s present and future leadership would do well to turn their creativity to the ample resources and capabilities the institution already has at its disposal.

 

Rep. James “J.J.” Johnson represents the 16th District in the Delaware House of Representatives, which includes portions of New Castle and south Wilmington.