Late last month, Alaska Gov. Mike Dunleavy sent shock waves through his state's university system when he slashed $130 million from its budget through line-item vetoes.
The cuts — totaling 41% of the state's support for the University of Alaska, when combined with an earlier $5 million reduction — are likely to trigger mass layoffs and force the system to shut down programs and campuses.
State lawmakers had until the end of the day Friday to reverse the cuts, but didn't muster the necessary 45 votes, the Anchorage Daily News reported. University officials had been urging legislators to override the vetoes this past week, but a standoff between those opposed to the cuts and those more aligned with the governor made it unlikely they would do so.
Dunleavy, a first-term Republican governor, is making the cuts to balance Alaska's budget and offset an increase in annual oil-revenue dividends each state resident receives, a promise he campaigned on. But critics warn such a deep and swift reduction in support will deal a "devastating" blow to the U of Alaska System and hamper its ability to provide the state with an accessible education and a skilled workforce.
"This is not the future I want for our great state," Natasha von Imhof, a Republican state senator, said during a joint session of the state's legislature on Wednesday. "Bright young minds will leave (the state) as they seek educational and training opportunities outside of Alaska."
The U of Alaska is one of the state's few colleges. If system leaders shut down campuses, some of which are in remote regions, students will no longer have an accessible option for college.
Wednesday's special session was attended primarily by opponents of the plan, as lawmakers were divided over where it should be held, the Daily News reported. Thirty-eight legislators showed up to the special session in Juneau, Alaska's capital, while a smaller group hunkered down in Wasilla, a two-hour flight away. That made it impossible for opponents to get the votes needed to block the vetoes at that time, and they continued to be unsuccessful through Friday.
In light of the proposed cuts, U of Alaska has been scrambling to figure out what's next. System President Jim Johnsen called the failed vote "a setback" for the university and the state in a letter to the university community Wednesday. However, he said some funding could be restored through a separate appropriations bill.
Raymond Scheppach, a public policy professor at the University of Virginia, told Education Dive that the governor gave the U of Alaska little time to prepare for such a massive reduction in support.
"If you were going to cut 40% out, you'd want to do it over a four- or five-year period to give them time to restructure and make good decisions," he said. "When you're in this kind of situation, you're just going to have to cut whatever is the most expensive to get the dollars down."
Accreditation at risk
The cuts also could jeopardize the U of Alaska's accreditation, its accreditor warned lawmakers in a letter last week.
A 41% decrease in state support "poses a material and significant risk to the quality of education provided to the students within those institutions," wrote Sonny Ramaswamy, president of the Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities. "Failure to properly fund these institutions could have disastrous effects, including the potential loss of accreditation, that could be felt for generations."
Ramaswamy told Education Dive in an email that it's likely the system will declare financial exigency, which would make it easier to lay off tenured faculty. On Monday, the system's board is meeting to decide whether to go that route. About 1,300 jobs at the university are expected to be eliminated.
"When you're in this kind of situation, you're just going to have to cut whatever is the most expensive to get the dollars down."
Public policy professor, University of Virginia
U of Alaska also will have to make hard choices about which programs and degrees to eliminate and whether to merge or close campuses, Ramaswamy said. In turn, the commission will be reviewing those decisions to ensure the system is "protecting the interests of the students," he explained, such as by crafting teach-out plans for shuttered programs.
What's essential, he wrote, "is that the students are not shortchanged and have a reasonable opportunity and likelihood to complete their degrees and meet their aspirational goals."
Losing accreditation would mean students no longer have access to federal aid. However, the process for losing accreditation prevents it from happening "overnight," said Joni Finney, director of the Institute for Research on Higher Education.
Still, such an occurrence would deal a critical blow to the system's revenue. In the 2016-17 academic year, roughly one of five U of Alaska undergraduates received Pell Grants and about the same share took out federal loans, according to data from the U.S. Department of Education. In all, those students received nearly $57 million in federal aid that year.
Costs to students and the state
Cutting support for Alaska's public university system could have wide-reaching effects on the state's economy. According to an analysis out earlier this month from two U of Alaska economists, the cuts will immediately result in about 4,200 lost jobs — with many coming from within the university.
That could make it harder for the university to recruit faculty, Finney contended. "Nobody wants to go to a higher education system that is failing and where they can't count on public support," she said.
Moreover, in their analysis the U of Alaska economists predict the university will "lose a considerable number of students," and that the falling enrollment will cause state residents to leave for education and jobs. They also note that students who attend Alaska colleges are more likely to stay in the state after graduation.
However, those students now may have to bear some of the costs of the cuts through increased tuition, they write.
Other research backs that up. After states pulled back their support for higher ed following the Great Recession, colleges began relying on tuition for a greater share of their revenue. In New England, for example, public doctoral institutions raised tuition and fees by 17 cents for every $1 divestment from the state, according to a report published earlier this year by the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston.
Tuition hikes also can threaten college access. "You will see students who have reduced opportunity and it will fall disproportionately on middle- and low-income students and (in-state) Alaskan students," Finney said. "That's where the access problem is already."