By Tamar Lewin
State and local financing for higher education declined 7 percent in fiscal 2012, to $81.2 billion, according to the annual report of the State Higher Education Executive Officers Association. Per-student support dropped 9 percent from the previous year, to $5,896, in constant dollars, the lowest level in at least 25 years.
“Tuition revenues are up substantially due to higher prices and more enrollments, but not enough to offset losses of public funding,” said Paul Lingenfelter, the president of the higher education group, based in Boulder, Colo. “Students are paying more, while public institutions are receiving substantially less money to educate them. These one-year decreases in funding and increases in student costs are unprecedented over my 40-year career in higher education.”
Lingenfelter said he was particularly troubled by the long-term trend of shifting the cost of higher education from the public onto students and their families.
Over the past 25 years, the share of public university revenues coming from tuition and fees has climbed steadily to 47 percent past year, from 23 percent in 1987. And with ever-higher tuition, full-time college attendance is out of reach for an increasing number of students, which bodes ill for their chances of completing a degree.
“We’ve developed a culture that says part-time study is OK,” Lingenfelter said. “But the more you go to school part-time, the less likely you are to finish. We should be providing enough assistance that students can pay attention to their education, and not making a living for a short period of time, so they’ll be prepared to make a good living for a long time.”
In 2008, before the recession, state and local government provided a record high of $88 billion to colleges and universities. And while the recession cut sharply into state financing, the federal stimulus funds helped keep the level of support relatively stable in 2009-11. But by last year, most of that stimulus money had been spent, bringing a large decline in government support.
Enrollment at public universities, which had increased 28 percent since 2002, dropped by 0.7 percent in 2012.
The worst of the financial troubles may be past. Education appropriations for 2013 increased in three out of five states, although the national total for state higher education appropriations is still slightly down.
“This is not a hostile environment for higher education,” said Patrick M. Callan, a higher education policy expert. “But politicians are really feeling pressure on the affordability and debt issue. In a couple of states, when they put money back in, they also put a lid on tuition. Anyone who thinks we’re going to get back to the status quo ante, that’s simply not in the cards.”