The economic slowdown has led to a dramatic shortfall in tax revenue, at precisely the same time that higher education finds itself in competition for public funds with other equally critical social needs. The growth of both school-age and aging populations, an increasing number of low-income families requiring assistance and the unexpected costs of providing for homeland security, along with other factors, presage difficult decisions for those making the cuts and those facing them.
A few statistics bring the picture into sharper focus:
* Colleges and universities are bracing for a wave of students to hit campuses over the next decade. The surge, propelled by an upturn in the number of births throughout the 1980s, will produce the largest high school and college enrollments in U. S. history.
* 80 percent of post-secondary students in Ohio are enrolled in public institutions.
* Public colleges continue to become less affordable. Sixteen states have increased tuition and fees at public four-year colleges and universities by more than 10 percent; Ohio raised tuition by 17 percent.
The Catch-22 is that we have to cut budgets at precisely the time we can't afford to. As new technologies change the way we live and work, businesses need workers with a higher level of knowledge and skills.
Further, the recent economic downturn led major sectors of the economy to restructure. Although an economic recovery appears to be underway, thousands of displaced workers need retraining.
And those who kept their jobs have to gain new knowledge and skills just to help their companies -- and themselves -- survive.
Education is the best way to retrain and reposition our work force so we can navigate these rapids and move toward long-term, stable prosperity. Ohio and many other states will need to adopt a strategic approach that recognizes all educational resources within the context of their ability to serve distinct populations according to their needs.
As public institutions prepare to handle the influx of high school graduates and maintain service levels on decreased budgets, private institutions must rise to the occasion and assist in meeting the state's needs.
Adults in Greater Columbus have tremendous educational opportunities in the private sector. Several Columbus-based institutions, including Franklin, Capital and Ohio Dominican universities, and Otterbein College, offer adult-centered programs. Others, including Ashland and Mount Vernon Nazarene universities, have an established presence with similar programs.
The University of Phoenix and DeVry University have always focused on the specialized needs of the business community and operate campuses in Columbus, as well. All of these institutions provide a much-needed service to the community, and for-profit universities don't demand a share of scarce state funds. Instead, they contribute back to the tax base of the state.
As our legislators continue to battle for funds to meet all of the state's needs, a number of quality private, for-profit institutions stand ready to assist by providing relevant and quality education within the context of the world of work. Their innovative teaching and learning processes enable them to meet the unique needs of adult students without placing further burden on the taxpayers.
A blended solution, leveraging the best of the public and private sector, will serve as the best model for meeting the educational needs of the future.
Eric Ziehlke is the associate campus director for the University of Phoenix-Columbus Campus. The University of Phoenix is the nation's largest private university, with more than 175,000 students at more than 125 campuses in the United States, Canada and Puerto Rico. Reach him at (614) 433-0095 or Eric.Ziehlke@phoenix.edu.