President Milliken's Appropriations Committee TestimonyGood morning, Mr. Chairman and members of the Committee. I am James B. Milliken, president of the University of Nebraska, I am here today to ask this committee to continue its support of higher education and the University of Nebraska. The priority you have placed on funding for all levels of education is important for our state and deeply appreciated by all of us whose mission it is to make Nebraska more competitive in the global economy. And, it is a major reason that the University is in a strong position to contribute to the state’s economic recovery.
We understand the current economic situation in Nebraska. We know people are suffering as jobs are lost, companies are closed and retirement and savings accounts shrink. Almost everyone in the state, and certainly everyone who relies on financial support from the state, has had to tighten their belts – and that includes the University. And we acknowledge that additional sacrifice will be necessary.
We also know that when the economy suffers, many people look to higher education as a way to improve their situation … which is one reason, I believe, that we had growth in enrollment this fall that put us at the highest level since 1996, and why almost 10,000 of our students are pursuing graduate degrees – an increase of almost 5 percent over 2008. We know that in a recession more students tend to stay closer to home, and we’ve seen that reflected in our growth in enrollment of Nebraska residents this fall. We also know that as jobs become tighter, graduate enrollments go up as people look to retool, and graduate enrollments are up on all campuses; at the University of Nebraska at Kearney, they’re up over 12 percent this year.
These students understand that a college degree is key to their personal earning power and a better quality of life for themselves, their families and their communities. And we know that an educated workforce is key to helping the state emerge from this downturn. There are some indications, including a report last week from one of the leading economic forecasting firms, that Nebraska is one of the few states that is already beginning to recover. I believe that the University can play an important role in growing and strengthening our economy.
Last spring, the legislature approved a 1.5% increase in the state’s appropriation to the University for this biennium. You also approved funding for the new College of Nursing Norfolk division and passed LB 603A to expand behavioral health training programs. This provided new funds of approximately $1.9 million over the biennium for nursing and $2.9 million for behavioral health.
We have pledged to be part of the solution to the state’s fiscal shortfall. Because of other budgetary obligations, primarily salaries and related benefits, we have already made permanent budget reductions of $8.5 million this fiscal year to balance our budget, including the elimination of 103 positions, which included both filled and vacant positions. We were prepared to do that because, starting last December, we asked employees to reduce expenditures, limit travel, ensure that every hire received additional review and put off any purchases that were not absolutely necessary.
We have not yet fully analyzed the potential impact of a $26 million reduction over the biennium. Our process for making those decisions involves considerable input from faculty and other stakeholders, and it is not a simple matter.
We do know that a reduction of that size would permanently affect jobs on our campuses and across the state, in academic and outreach programs. It could mean a reduced presence and reduced accessibility in greater Nebraska. It would affect our ability to address state priorities and to leverage state funds. And, it could have an impact on the significant momentum we have seen in the past five years – not only with five straight years of enrollment growth, but with success in keeping top Nebraska students in the state, record research funding in 2009 that was 20% better than our previous best year, and – especially considering the economy – a very successful year in private fund-raising.
We are especially concerned about the long-term impact of budget cuts on affordable access to a high quality education – which is our promise to Nebraska and our highest priority. There is a direct relationship between state appropriations and tuition … historically whenever appropriations go down, tuition goes up – sometimes substantially. When state support is stable, we are able to meet our goal of moderate, predictable tuition increases that allow Nebraska families to plan for the cost of college.
This year, we were able to keep the tuition increase to 4 percent, despite a smaller increase in our state appropriation – but our Board acknowledged at the time we set tuition that the pattern is not sustainable. We are not considering an additional burden on our students in the form of a mid-year tuition increase or tuition surcharge, which is being planned by Iowa among other states. However, a stable base of state support is essential to maintaining affordability.
This fall, I joined the Governor and education leaders in announcing new education goals for Nebraska … which include ensuring affordable access in addition to increasing high school graduation rates, being among the top 10 states in college-going rates, and improving college retention and graduation rates. These are ambitious but very thoughtful and attainable goals for our state. We need your continued support to achieve these goals, which will clearly benefit individuals, families, communities and the state as a whole.
I urge you to continue to make education, including higher education, a top priority in Nebraska. We believe the Governor’s recommendation is a reasonable start to this process. We pledge to continue working with you through these challenging times for the benefit of all Nebraskans. Thank you.