Study: State Cuts to College Funds Limit Public Access

(CN) – States cut $6.6 billion from public colleges over the last decade and disproportionately shifted the burden of costs to students from low income and minority households.

Research published Thursday by the Washington-based think tank Center on Budget and Policy Priorities highlights the consequences of deep state cuts to higher education.

“Nearly every state has shifted responsibility of funding higher education from the state to students over the last 25 years with the most dramatic shift happening over the last decade,” explained Michael Mitchell, lead author on the study. “The high cost of college has troubling implications for students.”

While states spend an average of $1,200 less per student today than in 2008, tuition nationwide has gone up an average of $2,700 per student.

Between 2008 and 2018, for example, Arizona cut 55% of funding to state colleges while tuition rose by 93%. In the Grand Canyon State, the cost of attending four-year college averages out to 29% of household income, but the gulf between racial backgrounds is vast. The cost of college is only 22% of the average white household income in Arizona, compared to 31% of black household income.

This trend coincides as the most diverse cohort of students in the country’s history seeks higher education. In 1980, students of color made up only 17% of college campus populations, compared to 40% today.

As the researchers note, “The economic benefits of receiving a postsecondary credential have been well documented. However, these benefits are not shared equally across people from different racial and ethnic backgrounds.”

Arizona is one of 41 states where funding for higher education remains below pre-recession levels. In 1988, tuition to state colleges only exceeded state funding in New Hampshire and Vermont. Today that is the norm.

While private colleges may rely on endowment funds, 54% of funding for public college classrooms comes from state and local taxes.

The 22-page report condenses decades of data from State Higher Education Executive Officers Association and the nonprofit College Board and adjusts numbers for inflation. Researchers also noted that the “sticker price” of tuition does not factor in additional costs like housing or books, or potential education grants, so the actual costs of attending college varies considerably per student.

Higher tuition discourages low-income students from applying, narrows where students apply, and leaves them disproportionately unprepared to pay off debt. Rising tuition costs additionally pressure students to take time off midway through degree programs.

“There is the threat that those students never finish, and that’s a precarious situation to be in: to go to college, to take out loans but not finish, it means you have the debt you need to pay off but you don’t have the credentials to do that,” Mitchell said. “This paints a very bleak picture.”

He added: “With lower state funding, higher tuition, and increasing burdens on students it really does start to beg the question of what constitutes higher public education.”

Unsurprisingly, the report recommends against large tax cuts and supports states that bolster rainy-day funds in anticipation of economic downturn.

Furthermore, if states are unable – or unwilling – to increase spending for public higher education, the report recommends concentrating resources based on need rather than by so-called merit-based scholarships. In addition to rewarding students from advantaged backgrounds, merit-based scholarships are not usually the deciding factor in a student’s ability to attend college.

The researchers argue that merit aid is typically given to students who come from “advantaged backgrounds,” and who would likely attend college with or without the scholarship.

After all, public college in America represents a key step in the country’s promise of opportunity.

“For a broad range of people, regardless of their family wealth or income, regardless of where they’re from in terms of geography, they’re going to have access to an education that will afford them a greater economic opportunity and a chance at reaching the middle class,” Mitchell said. “As states step away from investing in high quality and affordable higher education, it calls into question that promise.”

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