State Funding for Higher Education Continues to Lag, Despite Improving Economy

Posted By Eliana Osborn on January 29, 2016 at 12:27 pm
State Funding for Higher Education Continues to Lag, Despite Improving Economy

Public universities are partially funded by the states in which they reside, just like primary and secondary schools.  During the Great Recession, as state governments struggled to balance their budgets, education was one of the areas faced with significant cuts.  Some states like California have worked to repay schools for the money taken during the lean years.  Others, like Arizona, have continued to cut funding even as the economy has improved.

A new report from Young Invincibles provides state-by-state information on financial support for colleges and universities.  To give states a grade, YI “indexed over 40 variables for each state, including per student spending, average tuitions, state financial aid programs, and attainment equity.”  Sadly, the results are not what you would hope for in a country with solid employment and earnings numbers.

Just two states have gotten back to pre-recession funding levels, Alaska and North Dakota.  Those 2008-14 era cuts varied in size, according to YI.  Louisiana slashed education spending by 41%, followed closely by Alabama at 39%, Pennsylvania at 37%, and both South Carolina and Arizona cutting 36%.  The average size of budget cuts was 21%.

With such dramatic numbers, it is easy to imagine the consequences to institutions and students, including the much talked about increases in tuition.  It is no wonder that tuition in Arizona has skyrocketed 72% in just six years.  Other states where tuition has gone up by more than 50% include Louisiana, Georgia, California, Washington, Hawaii, Florida, and Colorado.

States spending less means that students themselves are having to pay more—despite facing the same stressful economy that causes states to cut back in the first place.  According to Young Invincibles, “In 2008, students and families paid approximately 36 percent of the cost of public college; in 2014 that percentage increased to half.”

The YI scorecard does give some states passing grades.  Only one state, Wyoming, received an A. Each of the many factors measured is given a letter grade, then a final grade is assigned.  Earning a ‘B’ were Alaska, Oklahoma, and Texas.  North Dakota was graded B+, with B minuses going to Kentucky, New York, Nebraska, and Washington.  Far more states—17—got a failing grade, including Massachusetts and Vermont in the Northeast, Michigan and Illinois in the Midwest, Alabama in the South, and Colorado, Oregon, and Nevada in the West.

A winter 2012 article from the American Council on Education noted, “Based on the trends since 1980, average state fiscal support for higher education will reach zero by 2059, although it could happen much sooner in some states and later in others.”  This may seem dramatic, but many states are simply not willing to put money into public higher education any longer.  The consequences for students are more than financial as all of society pays when education is harder to attain.

Eliana Osborn
Eliana Osborn is an associate English professor at Arizona Western College, with degrees from Brigham Young University and Northern Arizona University. She’s published widely in forums such as The New York Times, the Washington Post, the Christian Science Monitor, and the Chronicle of Higher Education.

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