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Higher education will likely take #036;50 million cut

The funding crisis spotlight has shown most brilliantly on Troy City and Pike County schools, but don't let that fool you into thinking they are the only level of education being impacted by Gov. Bob Riley's projected budget cuts.

Gordon Stone, executive director for Higher Education Partnership in Montgomery, said the portion of the states' Education Trust Fund allocated to public universities is likely to take a $50 million cut under Gov. Riley's latest proposal.

&uot;For the most part, we're looking at a 6 percent hit,&uot; he said.

That 6 percent hit is in addition to an already existing lack of overall funding that has Alabama sitting in last place.

&uot;Our funding is so far behind the rest of the region,&uot; Stone said.

&uot;The next to the last is Mississippi.

They're just ahead of us and they generate over $1 billion more than we do.&uot;

Alabama also falls behind in faculty salary rankings and individual student funding, which is $1,200 behind the national average.

&uot;You can't be naive and believe someone's going to wave a magic wand and the budget problems will disappear,&uot; Stone said.

Troy State University, along with other public universities, has had to raise tuition in order to compensate for the state's revenue shortage.

&uot;The state of Alabama has slowly bled public universities dry,&uot; Dave Barron, director of TSU public relations, said.

In 1992, average tuition in Alabama was $1,617 per semester.

In 2002, it had increased 118% to $3,532.

&uot;Extrapolate that over time and in 2012, the next decade, tuition could be upwards of 7,000,&uot; he said.

Stone said tuition is subject to increase, but not at an exceptionally large percentage rate.

&uot;You can raise tuition,&uot; he said, &uot;but at some point tuition becomes a barrier.&uot;

Already, Alabama exceeds Georgia, Florida, Mississippi and Tennessee with the fourth highest tuition rate in the Southeast.

Tuition won't be the only aspect hurt should Gov. Riley's cuts become reality; the repercussions extend far beyond the day-to-day management of a university.

Barron said typical answers to a budget crisis include holding certain vacancies open, increasing class sizes and limiting class offerings.

A lack of funding will also make it difficult for universities to attract out-of-state students and even keep faculty on staff

&uot;We will loose qualified administration and faculty,&uot; Barron said.

&uot;And we can't attract the brilliant kids from other states.&uot;

Barron said one Troy State University-Montgomery administrator is leaving for Georgia to take a position with a salary that exceeds his TSUM salary and his wife's salary combined.

A strapped Education Trust Fund will hurt more than faculty and students, though.

It is likely the repercussions will be felt throughout college-town communities.

&uot;If you don't increase salaries and the cost of goods continues to increase, like we've seen with gasoline, it will hurt,&uot; Stone said.

He also said students will have less spending money, which will mean less revenue for local business.

Barron said this far-reaching problem needs more than a Band-Aid fix.

Stone said educators are working toward finding additional revenue and supporting tax reform to prevent the need for drastic education cuts.

Stone said the main focus is to &uot;inform the public of how bad it's going to be&uot; should the trust fund lose the predicted $50 million.

Local tax reforms have been defeated all over the state and Stone said it is because people don't see the whole picture.

&uot;We need to tell the story of why this is important,&uot; he said.

&uot;The value will really be felt in the average citizen's pocketbook.&uot;

Stone said that for every dollar that goes to education, $10 is given back to the community.

&uot;People don't think about that when they're deciding whether or not to support a tax reform,&uot; he said.

Both Stone and Barron emphasized the seriousness of the situation.

&uot;You can treat this with a light-weight touch, but this is real serious,&uot; Barron said.

Still, the efforts Stone has seen so far to improve funding are encouraging.

&uot;It's a very involved team-like effort to change the way we fund education,&uot; he said.

He said he is &uot;more encouraged than ever&uot; that a real solution for funding problems will be found.

Cheyenne Martin can be reached at cheyenne.martin @troymessenger.com.