Center on Budget and Policy Priorities: State Cuts to Higher Education Threaten Access and Equity

The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities just released its annual update on state funding for higher education. In 45 states, state funding per-student in public four-year and two-year colleges and universities remains below what it was before the Great Recession a decade ago. The only exceptions are California, Hawaii, North Dakota, and Wyoming. Thirty-one states cut higher education funding in the past year.

Here is the report’s overall conclusion: “A decade since the Great Recession hit, state spending on public colleges and universities remains well below historical levels. Overall state funding for public two-and four-year colleges in the school year ending in 2018 was more than $7 billion below its 2008 level, after adjusting for inflation. In the most difficult years after the recession, colleges responded to significant funding cuts by increasing tuition, reducing faculty, limiting course offerings, and in some cases closing campuses.  Funding has rebounded slightly since then, but costs remain high and services in some places have not returned… To build a prosperous economy—one in which the benefits of higher education are broadly shared and felt by every community regardless of race or class—lawmakers will need to invest in high-quality, affordable, and accessible public higher education by increasing funding for public two-and four-year colleges and by pursuing policies that allow more students to pursue affordable postsecondary education.”

Over the decade state support for public higher education fell 16 percent per-student (adjusted for inflation)—with Arizona cutting per-student funding by 55.7 percent—more than half.  On average during the past year alone, public funding for higher education remained virtually unchanged—with 18 states increasing funding and 31 states reducing public support.

Tuition continues to climb: “Since the 2008 school year, average annual published tuition has risen by $2,651 nationally, or 36 percent.” Tuition increases in some states are shocking: Louisiana up by 105.4 percent, Arizona by 91.3 percent, Hawaii  by 79.7 percent, and Georgia by 73.4 percent.  “In Arizona, the state with the largest dollar increase since the recession hit, tuition has risen $5,355 per student….”

The report examines the broader consequences of these trends: driving economic inequality: “Over time, students and their families have assumed much greater responsibility for paying for public higher education… At the same time, this growing burden on students and families coincided with a multi-decade increase in the number of students from communities of color attending college… By 2010, that number had more than doubled to over 36 percent, and today over 40 percent of students attending public two-and four-year colleges are students of color.”

The consequence is rising debt: “Between the 2008 and 2015 school years, the share of students graduating with debt from a public four-year institution rose from 55 percent to 59 percent.”

As a society we are nowhere near the provision of free tuition for all at public colleges and universities. The report, however, describes steps states could take to make college more affordable to the students with the greatest needs.  States should: “focus additional state funds on building the capacity of colleges with fewer resources,” “which often teach the students most in need of additional resources and supports.”  Increasing needs-based rather than merit-based financial aid should be a priority.  And more states could permit Dreamers—undocumented immigrant students who have lived in the United States since early childhood—to qualify for in-state college tuition: “All told, undocumented students are now eligible for in-state tuition rates in 21 states plus the District of Columbia and have access to state financial aid in 11 states.”

The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities includes a reminder about public finance, at a time when many states continue to cut taxes: “State and local tax revenue is a major source of support for public colleges and universities. Unlike private institutions, which rely more heavily on charitable donations and large endowments to help fund instruction, public two-and four-year colleges… rely heavily on state and local appropriations.  In 2017, state and local dollars constituted 54 percent of the funds these institutions used directly for teaching and instruction.”