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Budget Priorities

Budget Priorities

We finally completed annual approval of Mason’s budget — virtually a year-long endeavor in terms of preparation and vetting, which means we’ll begin the next round quite soon.

At this point our budget discussions seek, I believe appropriately, to balance four major goals: keeping tuition relatively low and affordable; extending financial aid at both graduate and undergraduate levels; addressing long-stagnant faculty and staff salaries; and funding additional initiatives, particularly on the academic side but with necessary attention to support needs.

Goals one and two relate, of course. Better financial aid might logically ease pressure on tuition discussions by preserving or enhancing access for those most in need. Current fashion, however, may be leaning more on tuition than on special aid provisions, and we probably need a more focused discussion of the relationship of the two goals than we managed this year.

All of the current budget formulation operated, of course, in the shadow of the loss of almost 20 million in federal aid plus additional state reductions as well as the fact that over the past three years we’ve seen government operating budget support drop by about 45 million. Our budget priorities did not include some forlorn effort to restore cuts we had earlier introduced, which is in itself revealing as an acknowledgement of a crueler budget climate.

We did, however, make some headway on all of our four priorities. We allocated almost nothing for initiatives, but the new state budget providing three million for expansion of STEM faculty along with judicious use of enrollment growth funds derived from additional tuition payments did allow us to make headway — particularly in science, engineering, and health areas — but also in other areas as diverse as global expertise, hospitality management, philosophy, and international business, to name a few. We will also make a small dent on salary needs; and financial aid did go up, both from our budget and through new state allotments.

The leading priority de facto was, however, clearly keeping tuition increases to a relatively low level — only about half what we were estimating this time last year. At 6.7%, our in-state tuition and fee increase will be among the lowest in the state, and because we have less flexibility on fees than some of our brethren (due to amortization needs), the tuition hike is particularly mild. We achieved this, in part, because of judicious use of funds from enrollment expansion and other earnings; in part because of a deep concern about accessibility; but also in part because of a great deal of external pressure from state officials and also some members of our governing board.

The result is defensible, particularly in displaying at least some balance among many desirable targets, even if privileging one. But I do worry that we did not have quite enough opportunity for candid discussion of our balancing act. It is not clear to me that we should strive to be one of the lowest institutions on the tuition increase totem pole — no one pressing for moderation ever clearly stated why we should be. It seems to me vital to find a way next time around (hopefully free from additional budget cuts) to discuss the several priorities rather than holding ourselves to just the one principal measurement. But we don’t have to begin that fight for at least a few days.