Alaska is plenty cold, but Alaska’s college students may get a little colder next year courtesy of Republican governor Mike Dunleavy, who has used his line-item veto to cut 41 percent out of Alaska’s support for its public universities.
What has the University of Alaska done to deserve this cut?
Alaska’s state universities haven’t exactly been at the forefront of left-wing campus activism. Alaska’s universities are not heavily invested in workforce development in the state, nor does Alaska need state universities less than other states. Private pickings are slim.
Nor do state schools appear to exceed their counterparts in wasteful spending. When you compare the University of Alaska, Anchorage to other flagships, its ratio of administrative to instructional costs looks pretty good.
According to the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, UAA spends 22 cents on administration for every dollar it spends on instruction. That’s better than or comparable to flagship campuses in other states, including Rutgers, SUNY Binghamton, the University of Georgia, and the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville.
At the University of Alaska-Anchorage, state appropriations were already down 15.7 percent between 2014 and 2018. Not surprisingly, tuition has increased by more than 20 percent since 2015. An additional 41 percent cut will likely lead both to the shuttering of programs and to further tuition hikes.
Yet commentators doubt that the governor’s veto will be overridden, in part because there are enough Republican legislators with Governor Dunleavy to prevent such an override.
Support at the state level for higher education isn’t a new, progressive thing. From James Axtell’s Wisdom’s Workshop, we learn that the General Court of Massachusetts devoted “almost one-quarter of the colony’s tax levy for the year” to the establishment of a little college we now call Harvard University in 1636. Funding for the colleges that followed was typically provided by a “private-public coalition.” Localities competed to “woo and retain the colleges and their economy-boosting” students. It is truer now than it was in the seventeenth century that states have an interest in higher education, without which essential economic, social, and political institutions can’t function well.
Even federal support for higher education predates modern progressivism. But resistance to federal meddling with colleges and universities is connected to responsible fears about the near abandonment of constitutional limits on the power of our federal government, as well as respect for local and market knowledge.
Governor Dunleavy, of course, is not proposing that Alaska stop supporting higher education altogether, but his deep cuts aren’t founded on any Republican principle I know of.
One odd thing about Alaska is that every Alaskan receives a dividend from a fund supported by Alaska’s oil and gas revenue, the Permanent Fund. Governor Dunleavy ran on a promise to increase the dividend Alaskans receive. That benefit stood at $1,600 when he took office last year, and Dunleavy promised to hike it to $3,000 in accordance with a statutory formula the Alaska Supreme Court has already ruled does not need to be used to calculate the dividend. At the same time, he promised to close Alaska’s substantial budget deficit, which is largely a result of low oil prices. And Dunleavy isn’t about to ask Alaskans to pay statewide income or sales taxes, which they don’t pay now.
The principle, such as it is, behind Dunleavy’s cuts is that Alaskans should receive much larger dividends from the state, even as the state’s economic position has greatly weakened.
Dunleavy has argued that Alaska’s universities should just get leaner. But the 41 percent cut in state support he favors depends on that magical thinking according to which Alaska can nearly double the amount of money Alaskans receive directly from their government without doing significant damage to core state functions.
While Dunleavy is not the first Republican to promise free money to his constituents, magic is not a Republican principle.