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Higher Education

How States Are Shifting College Costs to Students

Beneath the ever-rising mountain of student debt lies a core question of values and priorities. College degrees benefit both students and society, providing paths to higher personal incomes and broader economic growth—but who’s responsible for covering the cost of that investment? A new report shows how in many ways, states have already answered that question. They’re passing the bill on to families rather than to taxpayers at large.

The Chronicle of Higher Education’s report looks at the decades-long erosion of support for higher education. It charts how public colleges were once seen as “worthy of collective investment for the greater good” but increasingly have been viewed as just benefiting individual students, who “ought to foot the bill themselves.”

This shift in public attitudes goes hand in hand with declining state support for schools, both reflecting tighter budgets and changing priorities about what’s worthy of funding. The Chronicle reports how, for example, a victory for auto dealers in South Carolina imposing a cap on sales taxes cost the state “an estimated $169 million last year, which would be sufficient to restore about half of the cuts made to public colleges since 2008.”

The report also highlights analysis from the the Pell Institute for the Study of Opportunity in Higher Education that shows if the funding trends since 1980 continue, some states could stop supporting higher ed entirely within the decade. Colorado could be first, reaching $0 in 2022, followed by Alaska two years later. In the 2030s, another nine states could join them, including Virginia, Massachusetts, and Oregon. Here’s the Chronicle’s chart showing the timeline when funding could dry up in different places:

Despite tales of rock climbing walls and bloated administrations, public colleges overall haven’t changed over the past two decades how much they spend to educate each student. With costs flat, public funding down, and public colleges asking students to fund the shortfall in revenue, the education inequality gap will further widen, the Chronicle argues. That means leaving behind students who would have gone to college, found good jobs, started businesses, paid taxes, and generally helped to drive the economy. An undereducated workforce isn’t cheap. States that think they’re saving money by saying higher education is a personal rather than collective investment will wind up paying for the consequences.


Weise is a reporter for Bloomberg Businessweek in Seattle. Follow her on Twitter @kyweise.

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