Thursday, June 14, 2007

The Brain Drain Budget: Gov. Heineman's Higher Education Hypocrisy

by Kyle Michaelis
This is what reporting without context looks like, another press release from Governor Dave Heineman as published in today's Omaha World-Herald:
Gov. Dave Heineman issued a challenge Wednesday to get more Nebraska students into college....

Heineman noted that Nebraska ranks among the top five states for high school graduation, but barely exceeds the national average for the number of students who go on to college.

He challenged state education leaders to boost the college-going rate from its current 59.7 percent.

Increasing that rate by 5 percentage points would give Nebraska one of the top five college attendance rates in the country, Heineman said....

State Education Commissioner Doug Christensen said many students don't believe college is possible for them.

Those whose parents did not attend college or who come from lower-income families may feel the doors to higher education are closed, he said.
Christensen is absolutely correct that the doors to higher education have closed for many Nebraska students - except it's Heineman and his cohorts who've locked that door and thrown away the key.

In Heineman's 2-1/2 years in office, he's consistently paid lip-service to making higher education accesible and affordable, yet by his actions and his priorities before the state legsilature he's clearly a roadblock standing in the way of Nebraska's making any true progress on these fronts.

In the 2007 legislative session that just ended two weeks ago, Heineman's proposed budget included increases to the University of Nebrask's budget of only 1.1 percent in the first year and 2.2 percent in the second year. This is at a time of booming revenue for the state, after years of the University's funding becoming a smaller and smaller share of the state budget while rising costs of energy, facility maintenance, and health insurance have far, far outpaced the rate of inflation.

So, where have the burdens of those costs been shifted? On the backs of students and their families, of course, who've faced skyrocketing tuition rates and student fees each and every year.

When Gov. Heineman has had a real opportunity to lead and to commit this state towards investing in our youth - our most precious natural resource - he instead went precisely the opposite route, making a short-sighted and destructive budget proposal that should have had every student, parent, and Nebraska business leader up in arms. Heineman offered a brain drain budget that would have sacrificed many of our best and brightest students, practically forcing them out of the state to continue their education.

University leaders and a few bold members of the Legislature's Appropriations Committee fought tooth and nail against Heineman's brain drain budget, getting the legislature to increase state aid by an average of 4% annually over the next two years. Although Heineman ultimately acquiesced to this reasonable but still insufficient funding, he used it as a bargaining chip to convince those Republican State Senators who are in his pocket not to override his vetoes of increased funding for a wide range of social services targeted at Nebraska's neediest citizens - from the elderly who rely on the Meals on Wheels program, to prostitutes seeking rehabilitation, to anyone with mental illness, substance abuse problems, or developmental disabilities. Jesus Christ must be so proud!

Now, the University of Nebraska's Board of Regents has come forward with a plan that raises tuition by 6% in the next school year. One can only imagine how bad the tuition increase would have been had Heineman gotten his way with his original brain drain budget.

As is, this 6% increase is hardly a victory after a decade of Republican "leadership" in the Governor's Mansion that has turned a blind eye as tuition has more than doubled. Let's look at tuition rates (per credit hour) at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln since 1997, the year before the Johanns/Heineman-machine took over our state government:

1997 $78.50 4.7%
1998 $82.75 5.4%
1999 $87.25 5.4%
2000 $92.00 5.4%
2001 $101.25 10.1%
2002 $111.50 10.1%
2003 $128.25 15.0%
2004 $143.75 12.1%
2005 $151.00 5.0%
2006 $160.00 6.0%
2007 $169.50 5.9%

What's saddest is that tuition increases have followed the same pattern across Nebraska's University system. Meanwhile, tuition at our state colleges in Wayne, Peru, and Chadron has also skyrocketed, with a 7% increase expected this year to $110 per credit hour.

In the midst of this crisis - to which Heineman's continued neglect, failed leadership, and lack of vision have been some of the worst contributing factors - it's simply outrageous that he would now act as if he gave a damn about making higher education more accessible and affordable. The numbers tell a different story, as does Heineman's actual record.

Everything we needed to know about Heineman's concern for higher education was revealed by his brain drain budget. Why no one will call him on his record, why he hasn't been exposed as the hypocrite and fraud his record reveals him to be, is a question each of us must ask of our leaders and of ourselves.

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Anonymous Dave Sund said...

How bad are things getting when these are the words of encouragement coming from student representatives:

David Solheim, student regent and president of the UNL student body, called the 6 percent hike "a remarkable achievement" considering the budget's prognosis earlier this year.

"Nebraska students should be happy with how the University of Nebraska handled this situation," said Solheim, a senior economics major from Norfolk, Neb. "It's as good as we're going to get with this board and this Legislature. It could have been much worse."

Yeah, they screwed us... but at least they were gentle.

Blogger Kyle Michaelis said...

Good point, Dave. The one thing I regret is that even the student regent was too much the polite politician to say what needed to be said - "with Heineman as Governor, this tuition hike could have been much, much worse."

Unfortunately, it's easier to blame largely faceless groups like the Board of Regents and the Legislature, even though the real failure of leadership and vision that imperils our Universities each and every year is rooted in the Governor's Mansion.

Anonymous Anonymous said...


I agree that it seems like those with the greatest ability are ignoring their responsibilities to the state. Everyone talks about the brain drain, but not enough about how to fix it. It's sad that the government guaranties everyone a free education k-12, but now in a world where you need a college education to support yourself, it is reluctant to help those who cannot afford to go. How is the US, let alone Nebraska, suppose to keep up in a world wide economy if education isn't one of our top priorities. It's a sad day when funding for education is first on the cutting room floor for it affects us all.



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