Budget concerns again looming over the Hill

Mai Hoang

Western administrators are in a familiar position.

The university again has enrollment growth with no money to fund it. But that same enrollment growth will aid Western in paying for possible state budget cuts without slicing into its departments.

Mary Lassiter, acting state budget director, projected earlier this summer a $274 million shortfall for this fiscal year.

Last year the state had a $90 million shortfall that prompted cuts in higher education.

With three times that figure being thrown around in Frankfort this year, Western administrators are preparing for another round of budget cuts.

“It would seem likely that there would be some cuts at some point of the year, but the magnitude is uncertain,” Lassiter said. “It is prudent for any agency that receives state funds to be mindful of the fiscal outlook in their planning.”

In response, President Gary Ransdell has decided to freeze unbudgeted tuition revenue to pay for potential budget cuts next year.

“I would love higher education to be spared,” Ransdell said. “I don’t know if I can count on that happening.”

Last year Western had to return $1.42 million in unbudgeted tuition to pay for a budget cut.

With students still enrolling in and dropping out of school, the amount of unbudgeted tuition revenue will not be determined until mid-September, Chief Financial Officer Ann Mead said.

Administrators have said they expect enrollment to break 18,000 this semester, increasing 500 from last fall.

Other state universities have 5 to 8 percent reserves in their budgets to fund potential cuts, but Western could not afford to have such a reserve because of enrollment growth pressures, Mead said.

If the state spares Western cut, the tuition revenue could be used to fill or create faculty positions and take other steps to relieve enrollment pressures, Mead said.

Administrators must deal with several uncertainties, Ransdell said. The election of a new governor in November and another budget season approaching early next year makes it difficult for them to predict how Western will fare financially in 2004-05.

With so much unknown, Western officials were not able to determine tuition rates for the 2004-2005 school year at their Aug. 8 meeting.

The Board of Regents usually approves rates early in the school year so admissions counselors can have them when they start recruiting.

“There’s so many unknowns at this point, that to try to project what our tuition should be at this point in time would be a guessing game at best,” Ransdell said.

But one thing is clear to Ransdell.

“Given the state economic climate, there is just no doubt that we will have a significant tuition increase,” he said.

Such an increase can go toward faculty salaries, relieving enrollment pressures and creating new faculty positions. But how much each of these needs can be met is yet another unknown.

“We have so many competing needs, it’s very difficult,” Mead said.

Reach Mai Hoang at [email protected]