State cuts to higher ed funding taking toll on affordability, access

A new report from the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP) shows how state disinvestment in higher education across the past decade has shifted costs to families and threatened access, especially for students of color and those from low-income households. The report “paints a very bleak picture,” lead author Michael Mitchell, senior director for equity and inclusion at the CBPP, told Diverse Issues in Higher Education

State revenues have rebounded—but higher ed funding has not

For the report, the CBPP looked at the change in each state’s inflation-adjusted per-student higher ed spending since just before the Great Recession in 2008. Researchers found that between 2008 and 2018, average state spending per student fell by 13 percent, or $1,220.

In six states—Alabama, Arizona, Louisiana, Mississippi, Oklahoma, and Pennsylvania—per-student spending decreased by more than 30 percent. Overall, state funding for two- and four-year public colleges in the 2017-18 academic year was $6.6 billion less than 2008 funding after adjusting for inflation, even though “state revenues are now well above pre-recession levels.”

Sticker prices have climbed, potentially deterring students

Many institutions responded to post-recession funding cuts by increasing tuition, so researchers also examined changes in the average sticker price of each state’s public four-year colleges. In the decade spanning 2008-18, the average annual published tuition rose by 37 percent, or $2,708. In Louisiana, published tuition doubled, and seven other states recorded at least a 60 percent increase.

Whereas in the late 1980s tuition accounted for just one-quarter of funding for public higher education—with states covering the remainder—today, the costs are split nearly 50-50 between states and families, the CBPP found. Tuition prices also have significantly outpaced increases in the nation’s median income; federal student aid hasn’t kept up, either, further threatening affordability and access.

Authors call on legislators to address worsening inequality

“As costs increase, this places more pressure on students and families to foot the bill, and for many students, this can put a college education out of reach completely, especially for low-income students and many students of color,” Mitchell said. Research has shown that, as tuition increases, class diversity suffers, and students’ debt burden worsens. Higher sticker prices also may “push lower-income students toward less-selective public institutions, reducing their future earnings,” the report authors write.

They caution that, if states do not address the mounting barriers to college access, they will eventually suffer from a weak middle class and a dearth of skilled workers. The CBPP says that lawmakers looking to avoid this scenario must increase funding for public institutions, strengthen need-based aid programs, and direct additional funding to colleges with the fewest resources.

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