Although state revenues have mostly returned to pre-recession levels, overall state funding for public two- and four-year colleges in 2018 remained more than $7 billion below 2008 levels, after adjusting for inflation, according to a new report from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP). The cuts, in turn, have contributed to an increase in tuition fees at public colleges and universities, shifting costs to families and complicating low-income students’ path to a degree.
While noting that “states have been reinvesting in higher education for the past few years,” the CBPP report shows that most are spending far less per student—$1,502, or 16 percent less, on average—than they were in 2008. Just four states—California, Hawaii, Wyoming, and North Dakota—are spending more per-student than they were in 2008, Education Dive notes.
Cost-shifting straining low-income families, deterring enrollment
The funding cuts have coincided with a 36 percent increase in tuition at four-year public colleges between 2008 and 2018, outpacing the median U.S. family income. CBPP notes that this “growing expectation that students and families shoulder a greater load for college education has created a more costly and fraught path to completing college.”
The challenge to access and affordability has come as more students of color attend college, creating “a headwind to this trend as students of color are less likely to enroll as the cost of tuition goes up.”
Low-income students are especially likely to be deterred by increases in college costs. Research has shown that, compared with students from wealthier families, those from low-income families tend to overestimate the amount they’ll need to pay for college—possibly because they are less aware of available financial aid. Tuition increases also drive lower-income students toward less-selective institutions—possibly compromising their future earnings potential—and have played a role in families’ growing debt burdens.
Researchers call for targeted financial aid, funding vulnerable schools
Asserting that “long-term cuts to per-student higher education funding threaten affordability, access, and quality,” the CBPP report calls on states to better ensure college affordability. In addition to increasing funding, the researchers suggest prioritizing need-based financial aid over merit-based aid. They also advocate for directing resources to schools with the greatest need, such as smaller regional institutions, which often teach students who most benefit from additional support.