University of Nebraska officials made their pitch Tuesday to the Legislature's Appropriations Committee on the importance of increased funding.
Several students helped with the appeal, including Isis Hernandez-Troch, a junior at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, and Meg Brannon, a senior at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.
Hernandez-Troch is the eldest of four children of a single mother, she said. She is studying biology, French and Spanish. Many of her peers have dropped out of college because of the rise in tuition, she said.
Brannon is the oldest of eight children and works at least two jobs at a time to try to keep up with her tuition. She plans after graduation to apply to Teach for America, which puts college graduates in low-income schools.
The connections between educational attainment, personal earning power and a state's economic competitiveness are well-documented, NU President J.B. Milliken said.
A Georgetown University report showed 66 percent of Nebraska jobs through 2018 will require more than a high school education. The state will add 56,000 new jobs requiring education beyond high school over the next five years.
In his budget recommendation, Gov. Dave Heineman proposed increasing the university's funding by $62 million over two years to enable a two-year tuition freeze. The committee would increase funding for the university, but by much less, offering $36 million more.
The university's request actually is higher than the governor's recommendation, Milliken said. The committee's preliminary budget would make a tuition freeze difficult, he has said.
The committee has noted that the Legislature spent a lot of money on the university in the previous two years, with new construction and improvements including $25 million in 2011 for Nebraska Innovation Campus and about $115 million in 2012 for three construction projects, including a cancer research center at the University of Nebraska Medical Center and a College of Nursing building in Kearney.
A new facility for the College of Nursing on the Lincoln campus got left off the list last year. Milliken asked the committee to consider the $17 million project again, redirecting to the nursing school $9 million that will not be needed for the veterinary diagnostic lab, funded last year.
Juliann Sebastian, dean of the University of Nebraska Medical Center College of Nursing, said the health of Nebraskans is affected by a shortage of registered nurses, nurse practitioners and faculty.
The Nebraska Center for Nursing estimates the state will have a substantial shortage of registered nurses of almost 4,000 by 2020, she said.
Tim Clare, president of the Board of Regents, told the committee the university is experiencing remarkable momentum at this time and has new opportunities to do even more to serve the state. It has major goals for more growth in enrollment and research.
In recent years, Clare said, the university has kept tuition increases moderate and predictable.
"A vital component of affordability is stable state support," he said.
The budget request represents a renewed state investment in NU after five years of relatively flat funding, he said.
Some questions and comments from appropriations members were pointed.
Sen. Tyson Larson of O'Neill asked Clare about the increase in benefits by adding domestic partners of University of Nebraska employees. The NU Board of Regents approved the plan last year that will extend eligibility for coverage to same-sex or opposite-sex adults who share employees' households and with whom employees are financially interdependent.
Milliken said at the time it was important to the university's ability to recruit and retain talent, and it was the right thing to do.
Sen. Bill Kintner of Papillion said he knew the university's Plus One benefits program played well in Lincoln and parts of Omaha, but it doesn't play well in his district.
"If I sit here and approve a big appropriation for you, I'm going to hear about it," Kintner said. "There's going to be people saying, 'Why are you giving them so much money? What they do is offensive to me. Why don't you give it in K through 12?'"
Lincoln Sen. Danielle Conrad said it goes without saying that the values of tolerance, diversity and equality extend beyond any legislative district.
Larson said it has been discussed on the floor that the Legislature has only $16 million to spend on bills that are being debated, outside of post-hearing adjustments. To increase funding, the university would be competing with other programs and agencies.
Is the university more important than early childhood education, K-12 education, Medicaid payments, foster parent payments, people with developmental disabilities? Larson asked Clare.
"A freshman can work at Amigos. A kindergartener can't," Larson said.
Clare wouldn't say one program or agency was more important than another.
"But I do believe it's a worthwhile investment. I believe it's a very important investment for the benefit of our state," Clare said.
Sen. John Harms of Scottsbluff said it was extremely important that the state have a strong university, and it's not a time to underfund the university. The world has become so competitive, that without a strong education system, the state can't compete with the rest of the world, he said.
"Whatever it takes, I think that we have a responsibility to make sure to set aside whatever our differences might be here and find a solution to making sure that we're all on the same sheet," Harms said.
That is, to make the university strong and give students the greatest education the state can give them so they can be competitive in this changing world and global economy, he said.
The committee will discuss agency hearings after they are completed in the next week.