Access to higher education, tuition costs linked to race for governor

Jessica White

John Kasich had the lead over Gov. Ted Strickland in the final hours of Ohio’s gubernatorial campaign, causing uncertainty about the future of higher education.

According to Sunday’s Columbus Dispatch poll, Kasich, a Republican, was ahead by 2 points before polls opened at 7:30 a.m.

“It is hard to tell for sure what impact a Governor Kasich (should he be elected) election might have on higher education,” said John Green, a political analyst at the Bliss Institute in an e-mail Monday.

In Strickland’s four years as governor, he has made higher education a top priority, said Lily Adams, Strickland’s deputy press secretary.

“If Ohio is going to have a sound economic future, it is crucial that we invest in the next generation of workers by lowering the cost and increasing the accessibility of a college degree,” Adams said.

Strickland froze tuition for two years and capped it at a 3.5 percent-per-year increase after that — boasting the lowest rate of tuition growth in the nation over the last three years.

Kasich recognizes the problem, too.

“Unfortunately, higher education costs have been rising faster than health care costs in recent years, and the financial burden has been passed back and forth between taxpayers and the students and their families,” Kasich said in a prepared statement. “This funding model is unsustainable.”

Kasich’s press secretary Rob Nichols said Kasich plans to keep tuition down by asking faculty to teach more courses and universities to combine programs. He has also emphasized his plan to lower taxes.

But Mark Kretovics, professor of higher education, said cutting taxes is a death sentence for universities.

“Tuition will skyrocket,” he said. “And our current $8 billion state deficit will only get worse.”

Investing in higher education

Kretovics said the question comes down to whether higher education should be considered a public or private good.

“Kasich’s argument falls on the side of the individual benefit, and therefore the individual should pay the bulk of the fare,” Kretovics said.

He said Strickland has shown he believes education to be more of a public good.

“So the more educated populace we have here in Ohio, the better off the state is going to be,” he said. “And if you treat education as a public good, that means the state needs to pick up some of the tab.”

But Kretovics said when looking at the state budget — next to prisons, roads and Medicare — education seems to be the “least offensive” cut.

“I think education should be the No. 1 priority,” he said.

Kretovics said this kind of investment in education is a long-term commitment, and it would be about 10 to 15 years before people would see a return.

“When people elect a governor they expect things to turn around overnight,” he said. “It doesn’t work that way. You have to invest money to make money, and this would be an investment in our future, not just for tomorrow.”

Short-term fixes

Political science professor Mark Cassell said short-term fixes often don’t work. He cited Kasich’s plan to lower taxes as an example.

“According to Kasich, if you lower the taxes, it will spur investment,” he said. “People will spend the money they save.”

But Cassell said this doesn’t work, citing former Ohio Gov. Bob Taft’s tax cuts, which have not yet lifted Ohio out of its financial hole.

But Andrew Polz, vice president of the College Republicans, said tax cuts are, in fact, looking at the grand scheme of things.

“If colleges have less money, they become more competitive and have to work harder for your tuition money,” Polz said. “It’s an incentive to improve the quality, and once you have that competition, tuition will eventually go back down.”

Inevitable cuts

But educators say it’s not that simple.

With the current deficit, both Kretovics and Cassell agree that cuts are unavoidable with either candidate.

“It’s just a matter of how severe those cuts will be,” Kretovics said.

President Lester Lefton said he can’t speculate about the candidates’ plans, but said these will be an “interesting six months.”

“We won’t know how bad the cuts will be until January,” he said. “We have endured budget cuts before, and we’re still here. We haven’t been able to grow, add faculty or improve facilities as much as we would like, but we’re making it work. We can cut the costs, but that means some things just have to go.”

Lefton said he hopes the person who wins will see the value of quality higher education.

“You can’t say ‘make faculty teach more, pay them less, cut costs and be an economic engine,’” he said. “It just doesn’t compute. I fully endorse the ideas of greater access and affordability, but we have to invest to make that happen.”

Contact Jessica White at [email protected].