A Truly Devastating Graph on State Higher Education Spending

The Atlantic

Are you a fan of public higher education? Yes? Then prepare to be upset. Outraged even.

The chart below from the Center On Budget and Policy Priorities estimates how much each of the 50 states has slashed per-student funding for its university systems since the start of the recession, adjusted for inflation. In Arizona, where the cuts were the deepest, funding has been hacked in half. Nationwide, legislatures have sliced off 28 percent on average. Only two states -- Wyoming and oil-rich North Dakota -- have increased it, by the think tank's calculations.*  


These cuts aren't the only reason the cost of a public education has jumped in the last several years, but they're an essential part of the story. As the CPBB notes, there have been some truly astronomical tuition increases since 2008 -- with the sticker price of school rising more than 50 percent in seven different states. 

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The states that slashed the most didn't necessarily hike the most. Some university systems chose to cope with leaner funding through cost savings -- perhaps at the expense of educational quality -- by thinning their number of faculty or combining programs. Other states, like Missouri, simply limit public colleges from raising tuition by more than a certain amount each year. 

But as shown on the graph below (which I plotted out with the CPBB's figures) deeper budget cuts did generally correlate with bigger tuition increases.  

CPBB_Higher_Ed_Cuts_Tuition_Relationship.JPG

There are slightly less gruesome ways to look at the changes to higher-ed funding over the last half decade -- but none of them are particularly encouraging. (Unless you're of the opinion that these schools are over-funded to begin with. That's a conversation for another day, though.) In January, using the same data as the CPBB, I charted the changes in total funding in each state, without accounting for inflation or changes in enrollment. By that measure, 38 states had cut their higher-ed budgets over the past five years. In Arizona, where the budget tightening was again most severe, funding fell by 36 percent. 

Unless technology allows colleges massively more efficient more quickly than anybody currently expects, or state coffers heal enough to start restoring these lost dollars, we're going to be living with the effects of these cuts for a long time. We'll see them in the form of higher student loan bills and students who can't graduate on time, because the classes they needed filled up too quickly. We'll see it in the form of the jobs lost on campuses. 

Again, there are some people who might think these cuts are overdue. Others might simply argue that states, needing to balance their budgets, didn't have a choice. But I'd argue that these numbers are a vivid demonstration of why Washington's post-recession path has been so disastrous. Instead of taking advantage of historically low borrowing rates and aiding the states, Congress cut the lifeline once the first round of stimulus funding dried up. Graphs like these show us the consequences.  

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*One important thing to note: Since we don't know exact enrollment for 2013, CPBB is estimating it based on recent trends. The State Higher Education Executives Association has a similar calculation from from 2007 through 2012 in its latest financial report. It uses a different measure of inflation -- part of the reason I prefer the CPBB's approach -- but it paints a similarly dire picture in the end. 

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