Berdahl: 'Education Cutbacks Threaten Future'

On Thursday, president emeritus of the Association of American Universities and long-time chancellor of the University of California, Berkeley, Bob Berdahl '59, discussed "The Future of U.S. Higher Education" at the Augustana Thought Leader Forum.

Official: Education Cutbacks Threaten Future
Cuts in aid will leave jobs for other countries
By Steve Young, Argus Leader, 12/02/11

Thirty years of states pulling back support for higher education, coupled with the budget-cutting gridlock in Congress today, is pushing America toward serious problems, a national education official says.

Bob Berdahl, recently retired president of the Association of American Universities, says a country that sacrifices its physical and intellectual infrastructure because of money concerns is creating “not an immediate, but long-term national consequences.”

Countries supporting higher education, as they are in Germany, France and China, are creating a global labor market that will continue to take jobs away from this country, Berdahl said. He spoke Wednesday at South Dakota State University in Brookings, and Thursday in Sioux Falls at the Augustana Thought Leader Forum and with the Argus Leader editorial board.

Those countries also are investing more money into research, again pushing them ahead of the United States, he said.

The answer, Berdahl continued, can’t be across-the-board federal funding cuts in student aid and research that seem probable now that Congress’ budget-reducing supercommittee has failed to rein in spending.

There isn’t enough in discretionary domestic spending that can be cut to find $1.2 trillion in reductions without “shutting down enormous departments of government,” said Berdahl, a 1959 graduate of Augustana College.

“My point is, I believe there is no way you can deal with the difficult crisis without touching entitlements, like Medicare and Medicaid, and without some revenue increase,” he said.

But just as problematic as the federal gridlock is what Berdahl calls the greatest challenge to public higher education in the past few decades, and that is a “disinvestment by the states.”

What he saw as president of the AAU, which comprises 61 major research universities across the country, was a continuing decline in state support. In almost every case, states were providing as little as 5 percent of universities’ operating costs to somewhere in the low 20 percent range.

“We’ve gone from state supported to state related to state located,” Berdahl said.

That loss of state support means the model for higher education is being forced to shift by default, said David Chicoine, president of South Dakota State University.

“We talked with Bob about what that means,” Chicoine said. “It probably means more financial independence for schools, and more deregulation from the state if we are going to be able to transfer from where we’ve been to where we are now. Of course, that often meets resistance from policy makers.”

Berdahl said many small private colleges that are dependent almost exclusively on tuition payments to survive are going under. But he also thinks liberal arts colleges are vital in the production of more human capital in America.

They create lifelong learners with their well-rounded approach to education, Berdahl said, and they equip students not just for careers but with the ability to learn another occupation if their existing jobs go away.

“He really brought home the fact that we’re seeing a decline in support for education, both on a federal basis and also on a statewide basis,” Augustana President Rob Oliver said. “What we once held up as public good, as things that are worthy of investment in our future together, now more and more is falling victim to an attitude of, ‘Whoever is going to benefit from it is going to pay for it.’

“There is a decline in how we value the public good of a more educated society, and that’s too bad.”

That decline is putting a squeeze on the middle class in particular, Berdahl said. At many institutions, low-income students can get Pell grants and qualify for student aid. And the upper class students can afford to pay out of their own pocket.

“The middle class is being squeezed out,” he said. “And that has to be part of the discussion. I think that simply means there has to be a greater willingness on the part of the American people to recognize that if we keep the country moving on the track we’ve been on, it’s only going to hurt us. There has to be some sacrifice, and maybe we have to pay more taxes, or the consequences could be too great.”

Kelly Sprecher
Communications & Media Relations