State Higher Ed Cuts Hurt Students, the Economy

State Higher Ed Cuts Hurt Students, the Economy

As students don caps and gowns for college graduations across the country this month, it's a good time to take stock of state higher-education systems — and unfortunately, the news isn't all good.

If we're to build the skilled workforce we need to attract businesses and compete for the jobs of the future, it's critical that public colleges and universities are both high-quality and affordable. Yet recent state funding cuts have driven up tuition and, in some cases, lowered the quality of education that students receive at our public colleges and universities.

A new report that I co-authored shows that the average state has cut per-student spending by 20 percent since 2008, at the onset of the Great Recession. That's a cut of about $1,800 per student.

Many states made modest progress this year in restoring the cuts they made during and after the recession. But those increases were slight, averaging just 3.9 percent nationally. That's not nearly enough to rebuild from the deep cuts that followed the recession.

Even worse, 13 states made further cuts to higher education. And three of those states — Kentucky, Oklahoma, and West Virginia — cut their per-student higher-education funding for both of the last two years.

In the face of these cuts, colleges and universities across the states have had to make tough decisions. Many have been forced to raise tuition, cut spending, or both.

Many of these cuts have come at the expense of the schools' central mission. Schools have eliminated faculty positions, cut courses or increased class sizes, and in some cases consolidated or eliminated whole programs or departments.

State higher-education cuts have also hit families in their pocketbooks. Annual published tuition (the so-called "sticker price") at four-year public colleges has risen by $2,068, or 29 percent, since the 2007-08 school year.

Higher tuition exacerbates inequality and puts college out of reach for many hard-working kids from low- and modest-income families. Research shows that rising tuition may deter low-income students from enrolling in college and pushes high-achieving, low-income students toward less selective institutions, diminishing their future earning potential.

These dramatic increases in the college sticker price have also contributed to rising student-debt burdens, which make it hard for many graduates to get ahead after college. Student debt equals $1.16 trillion — well above what households currently hold in either credit-card debt or in car loans. Payment on that borrowing can be a crushing burden that forces graduates to put off investments like taking out a mortgage for a home, saving for retirement, or even starting a business.

Those trends should warn policymakers of the long-term repercussions that these funding cuts may have. High-quality colleges and universities produce the highly skilled and well-educated workers that businesses need to thrive and grow. Shortchanging education now will make states — and our country — less competitive in the future.

Some states have opted to enact costly tax breaks for the wealthy or large corporations rather than boost their investments in higher education. These tax cuts are often sold as a recipe for economic growth. But tax cuts can prevent investments in higher education that increase access to college, improve graduation rates, and reduce student debt, causing the economy to suffer in the long run.

It's time now to renew investment in higher education to promote college affordability and quality. Strengthening state investment in higher education will require policymakers to make the right tax and budget choices over the coming years. Doing so is critical for the futures of students, graduates, and their families.

Michael Mitchell is a policy analyst with the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities' State Fiscal Policy division.

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