Public Funding for Higher Ed Hasn't Really Bounced Back

Since 1960, the publication Grapevine, published by the Center for the Study of Education Policy at Illinois State University, has crunched the numbers to determine how much funding states are giving to their colleges and universities. For several years after the recent financial crisis, it reported bleak news: From 2008 to 2012, Grapevine saw state funding fall more than 7 percent; in some states, the support dropped by more than a third. The decline in state dollars has, in turn, contributed to the steep rise in tuition at public colleges (PDF). Grapevine’s new data, released on Monday, shows that the boost for the 2013-2014 school year is the largest jump in more than half a decade, with states increasing their support for higher education by 5.7 percent. That puts their funding at less than 2 percent below the 2008 peak.

Still, a few points suggest the picture may be a bit less rosy. The Grapevine data isn’t adjusted for inflation. With this taken into account, state support for higher ed fell almost 14 percent from 2008 to 2012. While it has ticked up since then, even with the new allocations it remains 9 percent below the peak.

Also, enrollment at public colleges and universities rose more than 12 percent from 2008 to 2012, the last year for which there is full data. This means that there is even less money per student. Since then, enrollment has fallen slightly, according to early estimates. If you take inflation-adjusted funding and combine that with estimates of more recent enrollment declines—roughly 2 percent for the 2012-2013 school year, and a further 1.3 percent decline for this school year—per student funding is still more than 16 percent off its peak.

The rise in public support has led some state schools to consider or enact tuition freezes. Presumably more schools could afford tuition freezes if state funding were really to come back.

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