When tax revenue dried up in the wake of the Great Recession, states across the country decided to slash funding for public higher education, thereby passing a massive “tax” on to the students themselves. The results, according to a new report from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, have been severe: Five years after the recession, every state except for North Dakota and Wyoming is spending less per student on higher education than they did before.
Tuition increases have made up only part of the revenue loss resulting from state funding cuts. Public colleges and universities also have cut faculty positions, eliminated course offerings, closed campuses, shut down computer labs, and reduced library services, among other cuts.
Some states have cut deeper than others. Between 2008 and 2013, thirty-six states cut funding for public higher education by more than 20 percent, eleven cut funding by more than a third, and two states—Arizona and New Hampshire—cut their spending per college student in half.
Small increases in federal funding have helped to make up some of the difference, but state funding still provides 53 percent of the revenue used to keep higher education affordable for the three in four undergraduates attending public schools. Nearly every dollar that states cut gets passed on to their students, who have to make up the difference by borrowing thousands in private and federal loans.
According to the CBPP report, this has been the trend for at least the last quarter-century: Since 1987, inflation-adjusted state revenue has fallen $2,600 per student, while per-student tuition has risen by the same amount. “In other words, the entire increase in tuition at public colleges and universities over the last 25 year has gone to make up for declining state and local revenue, leaving no additional funding available to improve programs and services.”
For whatever reason, this trend appears to have accelerated during the Great Recession, and shows no sign of reversing. Until state taxpayers are willing to pay a little more to maintain our investment in affordable higher education—historically considered a public good—college tuition costs and student debt will continue to rise.