The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The economy’s bouncing back. But higher education funding isn’t

FILE: A graduate a Northwest Florida State College’s commencement, wears her cap on Saturday, May 10, 2014, along with other graduates in Niceville, Fla. (AP Photo/Northwest Florida Daily, Nick Tomecek)

The recession came and went, but the cuts to higher education stayed.

Spending per student remains below—in some cases well below—pre-recession levels in 47 states, reflecting years of cuts to public colleges and universities that have yet to be undone, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities notes in a new report. Schools have responded by cutting programs and staff and raising tuition. Where funding has risen, it hasn’t covered the losses.

“Even though there have been recent increases in per-student funding, those increases haven’t been significant enough to make up for past-year cuts,” says lead author Michael Mitchell.

State higher education spending per student, adjusted for inflation, is down 20 percent—or $1,805—between the 2008 and 2015 fiscal years, according to the report. Tuition, meanwhile, is up 29 percent, or $2,068, on average.

Over the period, per-student spending was up in just three states, rising 35.5 percent in North Dakota, 5.4 percent in Wyoming and 3.9 percent in Alaska. The remaining states have all cut higher education funding, with 31 cutting per-student funding by more than 20 percent.

And the cuts keep coming: governors in at least seven states—ArizonaConnecticutIllinoisKansasLouisianaWisconsinWest Virginia—have proposed reductions this year alone.

Arizona has seen the most dramatic decline, posting a 47 percent drop in inflation-adjusted, per-student spending since 2008. And the legislature and governor just this March signed off on a budget that cut higher education by an additional $99 million. In Louisiana, which posted the second-highest decline since 2008, higher education this week averted hundreds of millions of dollars in cuts, according to local reports.

Why states cut higher education

When the recession hit, starting in late 2007, tax revenues took a nosedive. While revenues by the end of last year were up 2 percent since the onset of the recession, the majority of states still hadn’t recovered.

And instead of implementing a mix of tax hikes and spending cuts, states responded mostly with cuts.

“States relied disproportionately on damaging cuts to close the large budget shortfalls they faced over the course of the recession,” CBPP notes in the report.

From the 2008 to 2012 fiscal years, states closed 45 percent of their budget gaps through spending cuts but only 16 percent with taxes and fees, the report finds. The rest came from federal aid, reserves and other sources. Had they raised revenue, higher education could have been spared some of the deep cuts, the authors argue.

Public colleges and universities have cut staff and programs.

Data on public institution spending is hard to come by, but they have responded largely by scaling back.

“Since the start of the recession, in response to state budget cuts colleges and university systems across the states have eliminated administrative and faculty positions (in some instances replacing them with non-tenure-track staff), cut courses or increased class sizes, and in some cases, consolidated or eliminated whole programs, departments, or schools,” CBPP notes.

West Virginia University has fired 13 employees and left more than 100 positions unfilled; last fall the University of Southern Maine cut 50 faculty members and canceled two academic programs; Pennsylvania’s 14 state-owned universities have cut 95 academic programs from 2011 to 2014.

Tuition rose as aid was cut.

Since 2008, every single state has seen inflation-adjusted tuition rise. It is up by just under 4 percent in Montana and as much as 84 percent in Arizona.

From 2005 to 2008, states provided roughly 62 percent of higher education funding with about 32 percent coming from tuition, according to the State Higher Education Executive Officers. But as the recession’s impact played out, states made cuts and tuition accounted for a greater source of revenue.

As of last year, the state share of higher education funding is down to 51 percent with tuition accounting for 43 percent.

But the cuts are subsiding

While the vast majority of states have yet to recover to pre-recession levels, most did raise higher education funding last year. Per-student funding was up nearly 4 percent nationally, with 37 states raising it. Still, the remaining states cut funding. In five—Alaska, Arkansas, Kentucky, Texas and West Virginia—per-student funding was cut by more than $100. Most states spend between $5,000 and $8,000 per student.

In fact, state aid overall was raised by 6 percent two years ago and 4 percent last year.