Students Are Paying More at Public Colleges and Getting Less in Return

Despite a recovering economy, students and families in most states are paying more for tuition at state-funded colleges and universities than they were 10 years ago, and some schools are still grappling with funding cuts handed down during the toughest years of the recession.

Low-income students and students of color who are increasingly populating college campuses are particularly feeling the squeeze as support services that make higher education more accessible end up on the chopping block.

A decade since the Great Recession hit, overall state funding for two- and four-year colleges during the 2017-2018 school year was more than $7 billion below its 2008 level when adjusted for inflation, according to a new report from the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities.

States have started to reinvest in higher education as the economy recovers, but spending on public colleges and universities still remains below historic levels. In 31 states, per-student funding actually fell between the 2017 and 2018 school years, and per-student funding fell in 15 of these states during the 2015-2016 school year, according to the report.

“At the same time that more and more students are attending colleges, it coincides with divestment at state level,” said Michael Mitchell, a co-author of the report, during a call with reporters this week.

Republican Austerity Hits Higher Education

Of the 49 states that Mitchell examined, 45 are spending less on higher public education per student than they were in 2008. State spending per student dropped an average of $1,409, or 16 percent, when adjusted for inflation. In nine states, per-student spending fell by 30 percent from 2008 to 2018. Only California, Wyoming, Hawaii and North Dakota are spending more per student now than before the recession hit.

States and, to a lesser extent, local governments provide just over half of the funding for public colleges and universities, according to Mitchell. He said state governments made deep cuts to higher education as the recession set in, forcing school administrators to make their own cuts to staffing, facilities and programming — and raise tuition for students.

Annual tuition at four-year public colleges has risen by $2,651 over the past decade, or about 36 percent, according to the report. Tuition at four-year public schools has doubled in Louisiana, and in six other states – Alabama, Arizona, Colorado, Georgia and Hawaii – tuition increased by more than 60 percent over the same period of time.

Josh Bivens, a research director at the Economic Policy Institute, said recovery from the Great Recession is marked by more austerity than any other recovery since World War II, particularly at the state and local level. The recession did decrease tax revenues, but Republican takeovers of state legislatures since the Tea Party wave of 2010 also had an impact as lawmakers pursued tax cuts and other fiscally conservative politics. Today, Republicans enjoy majority control of 31 state legislatures nationwide, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

“You see it clear in the data that states that flipped from blue to red or [already] had Republican control in 2010 had more cuts,” Bivens said in an interview with Truthout.

Much like marked increases in insurance premiums and out-of-pocket health care spending, the rising cost of public education is further evidence that working people have not felt the full benefits of economic recovery. Over the past two decades, the price of attending a four-year college or university has grown much faster than median income, accelerating a long-term trend of colleges becoming less affordable as public schools shift costs to students, according to Mitchell.

Mitchell said the federal government put a dent in this problem during the recession when larger numbers of students who could not find jobs due to high unemployment became eligible for Pell grants, but that spending did not fully compensate for increases in tuition and cost of living.

“Over a longer period of time, the Pell grant is not doing a great job of tracking with tuition,” Mitchell said.

Changing Demographics on Campus

The cost of going to college is consuming a larger portion of household income, particularly for students and families of color who already face structural barriers to education and employment — but increasingly make up the student population on public campuses.

When the recession hit, the average cost of in-state tuition at public four-year colleges was about 14 percent of the median household income, and now it’s up 16.5 percent, according to Mitchell’s report. In 2017, the average cost of tuition and fees comprised 20 percent or more of the median household income of Latinx families in 22 states and Black families in 33 states.

This creates additional hurdles for students aspiring to a college degree, particularly if they don’t have counselors or parents who attended college for help with navigating the financial aid process, Mitchell said. It can also cause students to prioritize working jobs over studying or taking time off from school to work and save money, increasing the risk that they might not graduate.

Angela Hanks, an expert on post-secondary education at the Center for Law and Social Policy (CLASP), said that failing to return public higher education funding to pre-recession levels essentially eliminates any progress states have made in expanding access to college for low-income students.

“This is the difference between being able to go and not being able to go [to college] for low-income students,” Hanks said in an interview.

Hanks said educators should pay attention because student demographics have changed considerably over the past two decades, and in many areas, policies and programs at public colleges are still catching up. From 1996 to 2010, the number of Black students enrolled in higher education jumped 72 percent, and the number of Latinx students skyrocketed by 240 percent, according to a recent CLASP report.

Only about a third of students at public colleges fit the description of a white, middle class 18- to 22-year-old who can depend on their parents. In fact, nearly 50 percent of students are living on their own and do not receive support from their parents, according to CLASP. More than half are considered lower-income, and about a third live below the federal poverty line. Many juggle school with work and raising a family.

Hanks said the students often have thousands of dollars worth of unmet needs, even after receiving financial aid to help pay for tuition. The cost of food, transpiration, housing and childcare can add up fast. On-campus support services such as tutoring and childcare help them say in school and excel, and advocates are now working to help schools put such services at the core of their academic philosophy.

However, Mitchell said schools across the country have cut funding for support services as they absorbed budget cuts during the recession, and in many states, lawmakers have failed to adequately reinvest in higher education.

“If students have to take on additional work to afford the cost of college, it can be a hindrance to putting the time into studying and obtaining your degree, and create a problem for whether or not a student graduates,” Mitchell said.

Fewer graduates means more workers saddled with debt and without a useful degree. This leaves communities with fewer skilled workers who can attract higher paid employers — and exacerbates inequality. If states are investing in an economic future by providing public education, then policymakers should spend the money necessary to make a return on the investment.

“[Education] is a public good, and states have made some level of agreement that this is something they want to invest in, so doing that in such a way to make it accessible to low-income students is critical,” Hanks said.