The Education Budget Crisis: Is It Necessary?

Jim ShimabukuroBy Jim Shimabukuro

According to the latest headline, the University of Hawai`i system is facing a $76 million budget crisis that threatens “massive cuts to programs, departments and schools”[1]. Yet, the state recently announced that $203 million has been released to the UH for capital improvements.[2]

The same holds true for the public schools. At a time when budget cuts are forcing layoffs, pay cuts, furloughs, and program reductions, the state is releasing $75 million for — you guessed it — capital improvements.[3]

I’m aware that UH is not alone and that countless colleges and universities around the country are facing similar hard times and budgeting practices. Thus, when I refer to UH specifically, I’m also referring to all the other higher ed institutions that are suffering similar fates.

Link to the TalkETC discussion on this article

For me, the fundamental question is, Are physical structures such as classrooms and offices so essential to education that they must take priority over programs and staff? Or put another way, When push comes to shove and we’re forced to choose between the two, do the buildings win?

Perhaps 20 or even 10 years ago, the answer would have been yes. Without campuses and buildings, education would be impossible.


But today, with online programs flourishing, the answer has to be a resounding no. Education is already being delivered online via strategies that don’t require expensive classrooms and offices. In fact, nearly all the physical structures that make up a traditional campus are superfluous for totally online classes. Students and professors can work from anywhere: home, dorm, coffee shop — wherever they have an internet connection.

To its credit, the UH isn’t completely oblivious to the potential of online learning. To address the severe budget cuts, the chancellor has begun a system-wide planning process to prioritize efforts, and under “D. Maximizing resources,” we find “Explore greater use of technology–enhanced learning (distance learning) to increase access to learning opportunities and achieve savings”[4]. The fact that this is last among the six priorities in this category is telling, I think.

The problem, I’ve been told, is the state’s funding process, which treats capital improvements as a separate budget item. Colleges and schools aren’t allowed to reallocate CI funds to other uses. Thus, we face the very real prospect of offering students well-maintained as well as new buildings but severely truncated programs.

But what if . . .

What if the funding process were made more flexible and colleges were given the power to use all or most of the CI funds in innovative ways to save or restore the programs that are now in danger of being cut or curtailed?

If this actually happens, how would we ensure that the funds would be used wisely?

My bias is toward pouring the funds into electronic infrastructure, staff reorganization, and resources that would mazimize a college’s completely online strategies and offerings. In my mind, the money’s there for colleges to thrive, but only if they’re willing to take the leap from physical to primarily virtual structures.

Given the freedom to decide, are colleges ready for this leap? Or would they still opt for capital improvements?

Needless to say, gravity is probably strongest in the middle, where the pull is toward a collegial splitting of the funds between CI and online, But the real danger in this kind of non-decision is that we may simply perpetuate the status quo, watering down the real power of the funds and going through the motions of changing without actually changing and ensuring that the we’ll travel all the way back to where we are now.


1. Dan Nakaso, “University of Hawaii in Crisis Over Deficit,” Honoulu Advertiser, 9 Nov. 2009.

2.$203M Going to Physical Improvements at UH,” Honoulu Advertiser, 7 Nov. 2009.

3.Public Schools to Spend $75 Million on Improvements,” KPUA, 5 Nov. 2009.

4. Virginia S. Hinshaw, “Preliminary Recommendations on Prioritization,” University of Hawaii: Communications, 8 Sep. 2009.

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