States Are Slashing College Budgets and Raising Tuition

Recession-scarred state colleges in the U.S. take cuts as fees soar

Photographer: Thomas Barwick/Getty Images

In 48 U.S. states, government spending on each college student is still below where it was before the recession that ended almost six years ago. Now, at least seven governors propose cutting deeper.

Republicans in Wisconsin and Louisiana, whose governors hold White House ambitions, as well as Illinois, Arizona, Alaska and West Virginia, all would reduce support for colleges and universities in budgets under consideration this year. Connecticut’s Democratic leader, Dannel Malloy, has joined them. In Kansas, shortfalls induced by tax cuts championed by Republican Governor Sam Brownback led to a 2 percent cut to universities set to take effect this week.

The proposals are part of a decades-long shift of making students pay for an increasing share of postsecondary education, leading to tuition increases at public institutions that outpace those at private schools. They come as a diploma, a driver of social and economic mobility that fueled the country’s post-war boom, is more important than ever to both individual and state prosperity.

“When we’re saying more and more Americans need to have this education, we’re pricing it so that the vast group that has never had it before can’t afford it,” said George Pernsteiner, president of the State Higher Education Executive Officers association.

Two-thirds of the 165 million U.S. jobs in 2020 will require education beyond high school, according to Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce. In 1973, fewer than a third did.

Students and families are shouldering a bigger share of the burden. Tuition accounted for about 48 percent of public higher-education revenue in 2013, the latest year for which data are available, according to Pernsteiner’s organization, which is based in Boulder, Colorado. That’s double what it was in 1988.

Margaret Naczek, an 18-year-old freshman at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, said Wednesday that she’s paying for her own education with help from her parents and they can’t afford to pay much more.

“It’s a huge concern,” Naczek, a journalism student, said in an interview at the student union.

The 18-month recession that ended in June 2009 shredded state budgets and eroded college money. While most have reinvested, the average state still spends 23 percent less than before, according to a May report from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, which analyzes how fiscal decisions affect the poor. Only Alaska and North Dakota, whose budgets have been padded by booming oil and gas production, spend more.

Arizona cut more than any other, spending 48 percent less per student in fiscal 2014 than in 2008, according to the center. Facing an at least $1 billion deficit, Governor Doug Ducey seeks to lower spending on universities by $75 million and on community colleges by $9 million in the next fiscal year.

“This protects taxpayers by rejecting calls to raise taxes,” Ducey said at a news briefing in January. “This budget doesn’t just give the appearance of spending discipline, it offers the reality of spending discipline.”

University budgets would fall less than 2 percent, said Daniel Scarpinato, a Ducey spokesman. Still, the demand has angered university officials and students.

The proposal “signals to the state and the nation that higher education is a low priority,” Arizona State University President Michael Crow wrote last week to alumni.

In Connecticut, which is contending with the third-worst-funded pension system in the U.S., educators have warned of even greater tuition increases than planned if Malloy, a second-term Democrat, secures $10 million in spending cuts. Higher-education agencies have said that would leave them nearly $80 million short, given new costs such as the need to pay raises mandated by collective-bargaining agreements.

Institutions make up the difference by raising tuition or cutting services, said Michael Mitchell, state fiscal policy analyst at the budget center.

In the past 30 years, average in-state tuition and fees at public, four-year institutions rose 225 percent, to $9,139 from $2,810 in 2014 dollars, according to the College Board, which administers the SAT entrance exam. Costs at private schools rose 146 percent, to $31,231 from $12,716.

Budgets reflect the political priorities of those who craft them.

In Kansas, Brownback’s push to create a laboratory for the idea that lower taxes stimulate economic growth has led to a projected $345 million shortfall this fiscal year. The higher-education cuts take effect March 7.

Even with the reductions, spending this fiscal year was $20 million above last, said Eileen Hawley, a Brownback spokeswoman.

Louisiana’s governor, Republican Bobby Jindal, is struggling to close a $1.6 billion budget gap exacerbated by falling oil and gas prices while casting himself as a fiscal steward worthy of the presidency.

Jindal’s budget proposes $211 million in higher-education cuts. “Revenue enhancements” he proposed last week, which include issuing bonds against federal tobacco settlement payments and using unclaimed lottery funds, would negate the need, said Meghan Parrish, a spokeswoman for the state’s Division of Administration.

Governor Bruce Rauner, the first Republican elected to lead Illinois in 16 years, is seeking to plug the state’s $6.2 billion deficit in part with $387 million in cuts to higher education, a 31.5 percent reduction. Catherine Kelly, his spokeswoman, said the plan preserves funding to community colleges and to the financial aid program for needy students.

Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, another Republican with White House ambitions, has steered more than $2 billion in tax cuts through the legislature since taking office in 2011. Walker has called for a $300 million reduction for the university system during the next two years.

The governor backtracked on changing the so-called Wisconsin Idea, the Progressive-era belief that underpins the system, holding that it should improve the lives of every citizen beyond the classroom. Walker had proposed shifting to a narrower goal of meeting “workforce needs.”

The governor’s proposed cut is “a pretty shocking figure,” said Walker Van Dixhorn, 23, a fifth-year engineering student at the University of Wisconsin at Madison.

While Walker’s stated goal of giving schools more flexibility to control costs and spend efficiently sounds good, it’s hard to know what effect the cuts may have on tuition and educational offerings, he said.

“It’s disheartening and disconcerting,” Van Dixhorn said. “I’d like to see this remain a world-class institution that my kids can go to one day.”

—With assistance from Mark Niquette in Madison, Elizabeth Campbell in Chicago, Jennifer Oldham in Denver, Tim Jones in Chicago and Margaret Newkirk in Atlanta.

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