Costs to students could increase and jobs could potentially be at risk at the University of Wyoming in its second year of budget cuts.
Continued low energy prices driving down government revenue resulted in a drop in state block grant funding to the tune of almost $41 million through the last year.
In addition to the $19.3 million in reductions already implemented in the current fiscal year — carrying through the biennium and beyond — the new plan would result in approximately $10 million more in permanent reductions.
A proposed plan to generate revenue would yield an estimated $10.9 million, though it would come from a differential tuition program where students would be asked to pay more for programs that come at a higher cost, such as engineering. However, those at UW supporting the proposal argue the additional revenue would increase student services in areas such as advising and career placement.
A budget plan for fiscal year 2017-2018 proposed Wednesday strives to realize required reductions without terminating jobs, but it’s not clear whether that goal will be met.
“From the faculty standpoint, there won’t be any people terminated,” said Chad Baldwin, UW’s associate vice president for communications and marketing. “With the other reductions across units, it’s possible there would be some, but we just don’t know yet. … The president did express that it is the hope this can be mostly accomplished with attrition, but there is a possibility of layoffs.”
The proposals were developed by UW President Laurie Nichols with consultation from the Financial Crisis Advisory Committee.
“The plan represents our best effort to meet the necessary reductions in the state block grant while adhering to the university’s core mission of quality education for our students, and research and service to benefit the state,” Nichols says in a news release. “Reductions of this magnitude are never easy, but this plan will maintain UW’s status as an outstanding academic institution dedicated to the education and success of our students.”
Faculty separation incentives and eliminating vacant positions would save an estimated $2.75 million in fiscal year 2017-2018, based on estimates from the president’s office.
The proposed plan for the upcoming fiscal year would offer a separation agreement targeting faculty with at least 15 years at UW, with a goal of saving $4 million, though a news release states $2 million of that would go into hiring new faculty in high-priority areas.
Approximately 15 faculty and staff vacancies opened since the beginning of the current fiscal year could account for the remaining $750,000 of the $2.75 million goal.
Reductions are recommended across the board for campus units with a goal of reducing another $5.91 million. The bulk of the those cuts would affect services in Academic Affairs — reducing budgets in areas such as the College of Arts and Sciences and College of Agriculture and Natural Resources — at just more than $2 million. Division of Administration, Athletics, Student Affairs, the President’s Office and Office of General Counsel would all be affected by reductions, as well.
Through all the reductions realized and proposed thus far, Baldwin said UW’s leaders strived to minimize reductions to departments that directly affect students’ day-to-day lives.
“Students have been the priority, and the reductions academic units are taking in this plan are relatively small,” Baldwin said. “It would be naïve to argue that students won’t feel any impact. … But as structured now, the reductions for the current fiscal year and those proposed for the second year of the biennium are focused on protecting our core values and services, and students are at the very top of that list. But with cuts of this magnitude, there will be some impacts, but I don’t, however, think they’ll be severe for students. “
Recommendations from Huron Consulting Group — contracted by UW to develop a new fiscal system — include reductions to long-term disability benefits, Information Technology services and student health services, with an estimated $1.57 million in savings.
A separate proposal aimed at possibly eliminating 16 degree programs was not factored into the plan for the upcoming fiscal year.
Ramping up revenue
In addition to the work by the Financial Crisis Advisory Committee to find reductions at UW, the Revenue Enhancement Subcommittee of that board is proposing a plan to implement new program fees that would increase the cost of tuition for students in high-cost programs.
Rob Godby, director of the University of Wyoming Center for Energy Economics and Public Policy, is the chair of the subcommittee. In analyzing what reasonable fees would be, Godby said the subcommittee found it makes sense to implement different fees for different degree programs.
“These are program fees that recognize different programs UW offers have different costs,” Godby said. “Similarly, different programs have different values to students upon graduation. For example, an engineering student may have significantly more in lifetime earnings. At most other institutions now, programs charge a form of differential tuition where they charge an additional amount per credit hour for students in programs like business and engineering. We were tasked with looking at whether they’d be justified at this university, and they are.”
The highest rates for fee-specific programs would likely be applied to engineering students, but fees are proposed college-wide. The subcommittee estimates an additional $10.9 million could be produced under the proposed plan.
Godby said part of UW’s commitment under the plan is to reinvest a portion of that revenue in student services that could increase retention and graduation rates, a well as the quality of degree programs.
“This would actually add more advisors on campus, including staffing for new advising, placement and communication centers to improve student success,” he said. “While they may be paying more for the cost of attendance, the value they get from the University of Wyoming, we’re hoping, will improve.”
Expenditures for student services such as professorial advising and career placement would total $3.6 million, with $5.9 million for instruction and other services. The proposed fees would replace the current $1.4 million in current program fees.
Another benefit would be seat guarantees for courses that fulfill graduation requirements, Godby said. If students in any academic department need a course to graduate but the section is filled for the semester, Godby said students frequently find themselves waiting one or even two semesters before they can register, delaying graduation. The new revenue generated from the program fees would allow departments to open new sections to accommodate demand.
Though he realizes increased fees affect students, Godby said it’s important to keep the concerns in context. UW, he said, would continue to be the best value of any flagship doctoral university in the nation if the program fees are implemented. Comparing the increased cost for students and the lifetime benefits of having a college degree remains a worthwhile incentive as well, he said. Finally, he said leaders at UW are also committed to finding grants, scholarship and loan opportunities for students with financial hardships.
“This recognizes both the value of the university degree and the importance of instruction quality while ensuring students succeed,” Godby said. “But it is also the case that where this might impose a financial challenge that the university is committed to finding scholarship funds and support them.”
Ultimately, Godby said it’s important to understand the Wyoming Legislature was very generous to university students during its more fruitful budgetary years. With an uncertain future for the state’s economy, he said the money will have to come from somewhere else to ensure the desired outcomes at UW continue.
“It’s easy to get really bogged down in how challenging the current revenue circumstances are, but once in awhile, it’s good to celebrate the value we take for granted in Wyoming,” he said. “In this problem of diminished natural resource revenues, the state can’t afford to be as generous as it’s historically been. The bottom line is those revenues have fallen, and if those aren’t carrying the burden, some people will have to carry it a bit more. It this case, that will be undergraduate students. But we’ve done everything to make sure the burden is as little as possible and hopefully they will be paying for a better value.”