State Funding for Public Colleges and Universities: Tax and Budget Cuts Reinforce Inequality

In many states, the budget for next year or for a two-year biennium will be decided in just a few days—the end of June.  As your legislators wrap up their wrangling about the budget, consider these facts about the condition of funding for public colleges and universities that the the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP)  presented last month. I urge you to look at the data on each of the 50 states in the CBPP’s report as a benchmark for evaluating whether your state will be reversing or perpetuating some pretty scary trends:

  • “Forty-seven states—all except Alaska, North Dakota, and Wyoming—are spending less per student in the 2014-15 school year than they did at the start of this recession.
  • “The average state is spending $1,805, or 20 percent less, per student than it did in the 2007-2008 school year.
  • “Per-student funding in Alabama, Arizona, Louisiana, Pennsylvania, and South Carolina is down by more than 35 percent since the start of the recession.
  • “In 13 states, per-student funding fell over the last year.  Of these three states—Kentucky, Oklahoma, and West Virginia—have cut per-student higher education funding for the last two consecutive years.”

This past year many states did raise their investment in their colleges and universities (and in California, Governor Jerry Brown just signed a budget that continues to raise expenditures, though there is a long way to go).  And yet, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities reports that some states are actively considering further cuts to higher education spending in their current budget negotiations: “Tax cuts are often sold as a recipe for economic growth.  But to the extent that tax cuts prevent investments in higher education that would increase access to college, improve graduation rates, and reduce student debt, their net effect could be a drag on the economy.  States that have cut higher education funding deeply and yet are considering or have enacted tax cuts this year include Arizona, Florida, Maine, Michigan, Montana, Nebraska New Hampshire, North Carolina, Ohio, Texas, and Wisconsin.”

How have states kept their colleges and universities afloat as legislatures cut their funds?  “Public colleges and universities across the country have increased tuition to compensate for declining state funding, and rising costs.  Annual published tuition at four-year public colleges has risen (on average) by $2,068, or 29 percent, since the 2007-08 school year, after adjusting for inflation.  In Arizona, published tuition at four-year schools is up more than 80 percent, while in five other states—California, Florida, Georgia, Hawaii, and Louisiana—published tuition is up more than 60 percent.”  Universities have also been forced to eliminate campuses or programs or departments and to replace full-time professors with part-time adjuncts.

In the July 9 New York Review of Books, Andrew Delbanco, professor of American Studies at Columbia University, describes “Our Universities: The Outrageous Reality” (in a piece that is unfortunately behind a paywall but available in your local library).  Delbanco describes how the growing cost of higher education is putting college out of reach for many students whose family’s income has fallen or stayed flat as tuition keeps rising: “Between 2000 and 2008, the proportion of family income required for families in the bottom income quintile to cover the average cost of attending a four-year public institution rose from 39 percent to 55 percent.  For top quintile families over that same period, the corresponding rise went from 7 percent to 9 percent.”

Delbanco believes higher education is driving inequality: “The story these numbers tell is of a higher education system—public and private—that is reflecting the stratification of our society more than resisting it.  Those students who do get to college are distributed, like airline passengers, into distinct classes of service, but with incomparably larger and lingering effects.  In 2010, private non-profit universities, whose students tend to be relatively affluent, spent on average nearly $50,000 per student—with the wealthiest colleges spending nearly double that amount.  At public four-year institutions expenditure per student was $36,000, while community colleges, where minority and first-generation students are concentrated… could spend just $12,000 per student.”  He adds that while the size of  federal Pell Grants to help the neediest students has grown, in 1970 a Pell grant covered a far greater portion of a student’s costs than it does today: “(A) Pell Grant in the 1970s covered four fifths of total cost at the average four-year public university.  Today it covers less than one third.”  “One result,” Delbanco reports, “is that graduation rates are the same for low-income students with high test scores as for high-income students with low test scores.  In the United States today, three of every five children from families in the top income quartile earn a bachelor’s degree by age twenty-four, while for those in the bottom quartile the rate is one in four.”

Mike Rose, whose 2012 book, Back to School explores the role and importance of community colleges for expanding opportunity, posted College Affordability and the Low-Income Student on his blog earlier this week. Rose humanizes the data by describing how the cost of even community college undermines the possibility that students he knows can finish degrees or even shorter term certification programs: “These are successful students, students who have strong Grade Point Averages and who have education and career goals they they are working hard to realize… They live in a tight web of financial constraint… They have different packages of financial aid—some combination of grants, work-study, loans—but it is rare… that they get enough aid to cover their costs.  There are times when they cannot afford textbooks or supplies for occupational courses.  Or they can’t pay phone or Internet bills… One of the students I know lives in a two bedroom apartment with eight other people… Responsibilities beyond school also weigh heavily on them, for they have no financial reserves to draw on—none whatsoever.  One woman was making good progress toward completing an Associate of Science degree on top of an occupational certificate, but had to leave college for a year to pay medical bills and help support her mother.”  For these “diligent, motivated people,” Rose declares, “community college is just within tenuous reach.”

Andrew Delbanco worries that our society may have lost its bearings: “Perhaps concern for the poor has shriveled not only among policymakers but in the broader public. Perhaps in our time of focus on the wealthy elite and the shrinking middle class, there is a diminished general will to regard poor Americans as worthy of what are sometimes called ‘the blessings of American life’—among which the right to education has always been high if not paramount.”

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