Michael Bayne has done everything you’re supposed to do to avoid taking on too much debt for college. He lives off-campus to save money on housing. He’s always working at least one job — sometimes two. And he enrolled as an in-state student at a public school, Arizona State University.
But it’s not nearly enough. The $2,500 in grants Bayne received this semester covered less than half of his tuition at ASU. A decade ago, the same amount of aid would have been enough to pay his entire bill.
“My parents don’t have money to help me, so to help pay for tuition, pay for books, pay for everything, I work a full-time job,” he said. “And I still have $17,000 in student loans.”
It used to be that students such as Bayne could attend a public university and graduate with little or no debt. Then came the recession, when state governments slashed funding of higher education and families began paying higher tuition bills.
Now, even as the economy recovers and taxpayer revenue is pouring back in, states have not restored their funding, and tuition keeps rising, leaving parents and students scrambling to cover costs.
Total student debt now surpasses $1 trillion and is growing by the day. For the first time, according to a recent study, families are shouldering more of the cost of public university tuition than state governments.
No state has cut its higher education funding more since the recession than Arizona, which slashed per-student spending by 48 percent since 2008, from $6,387 per student to $3,305 per student, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a think tank. All but two states — Alaska and North Dakota — are spending less per student than they did before the downturn.
In Virginia, funding has been cut by nearly 25 percent; in Maryland, by 12 percent; and in the District, 5.4 percent.
Tuition at public universities, meanwhile, has risen. The cost of Arizona’s four-year public colleges has increased more than 80 percent, to $10,065 from $5,572.
By comparison, tuition in the District has climbed 71 percent since the recession, while it has gone up 32 percent in Virginia. Maryland schools raised tuition by only 3 percent during that time, but several imposed an additional mid-year increase of 2 percent for the spring semester that started this week. Annual published tuition at four-year public colleges has risen by $1,936, or 28 percent, since the 2007-2008 school year, after adjusting for inflation.
“The recession taught legislators that families will bear the cost of higher tuition, so that sent a signal to the state that it is possible to transfer the buck,” said Sara Goldrick-Rab, a professor of education policy at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. “Now there is little incentive to reinvest.”
States across the country are wrestling with decisions over whether to raise taxes or cut programs to replenish funding for colleges. And it’s not easy in some cases to find the money for higher education.
Arizona is facing a $1.5 billion state budget deficit. And policymakers are legally prohibited from touching the budgets of many state programs, but not higher education.
This month, Gov. Doug Ducey (R) announced $75 million in further cuts to higher education in his budget proposal. That represents about 10 percent of the funding that the state provides the universities.
“Governor Ducey believes higher education is an investment, both for the state and for individuals, and he will continue working closely with the regents and the presidents to ensure Arizona universities remain successful,” said Daniel Scarpinato, a spokesman for the governor’s office.
Arizona once had one of the most affordable university systems in the country. Its three four-year public schools — Arizona State University, the University of Arizona and Northern Arizona University — received $1 billion a year from the state’s general fund, which kept in-state tuition below the national average.
Then came the housing bust, and state revenue plummeted. Arizona cut tens of millions of dollars to support its universities. Administrators eliminated more than 2,100 positions and 182 colleges, schools, programs or departments.
The same story played out across the country.
At the same time, full-time enrollment at state schools increased 10 percent, as students sought degrees to help them in a dismal job market.
But many states were setting aside less money for grants and scholarships.
Xavier Walker, a political science major, entered the University of Arizona with $15,000 in academic scholarships, $3,000 of which came from the school. But by his junior year, Walker, 20, still amassed $14,000 in student debt. The scholarship covered only a portion of tuition and no living expenses.
Walker holds down one job at the YMCA and another at Dillard’s department store, scheduling all of his classes on Tuesdays and Thursdays. He routinely searches the school’s scholarship database but has yet to find any aid that would let him cut back on work.
Federal Pell grants for low-income students now cover just over one-third of college costs.
Cymone Ragland, 27, figured she could keep the cost of college down by attending Maricopa Community College before heading off to Northern Arizona University. The Pell grant she received was enough to cover tuition at Maricopa. Between her 35-hour-a-week job at Discover Card and her parents’ help, Ragland had little trouble paying for books and other expenses.
Things changed when she arrived at Northern Arizona, where her $1,000 Pell award barely put a dent in the $9,700 tuition. Ragland graduated in December with a bachelor’s degree in business administration and $35,000 in student loans.
“My dad was always against me taking loans, but I told him, ‘It’s different now than when you were in school.’ I don’t really have a choice. I just don’t,” Ragland said. “It became overwhelming knowing that I was getting further into debt, but I really wanted to finish.”
On average, students graduate Arizona universities with $20,299 in debt, a little below the national average of $29,000, according to a recent report from Young Invincibles. Still, the student advocacy group gave the state a failing grade for offering only $47 in grants per full-time student, well below the national average of $561.
Arizona has restored $90 million for its universities in recent years. Tuition has leveled off.
But there is no telling whether tuition hikes can be avoided in the face of another round of budget cuts.
“As dollars were available over the past couple of years, our legislature has recommitted funding. However, since then the state budget position has darkened,” said Eileen I. Klein, president of the Arizona Board of Regents.
She said that before the recession, 65 percent of the universities’ funding came from the state. Now it’s down to 25 percent.
“We don’t know when or if the funding levels will return to pre-recessionary levels, so we’ve been thinking about how can we create new funding models that recognizes this era of diminished commitment from the state coffers,” Klein said.
Arizona State President Michael M. Crow has struck a number of deals with foundations and companies.
“We’re operating on a new model, where we desire public investment, we move forward faster with more public investment, but we’re moving forward nonetheless,” Crow said.
The broader Arizona strategy has been to enroll more out-of-state students.
Critics say this hurts low-income residents because many schools offer merit-based aid to attract non-residents, rather than directing that money to the neediest students.
In the meantime, students such as Bayne continue to fall behind. By his sophomore year at Arizona State, his grades started to slip while he worked one part-time job on campus and another at a security firm. The balancing act ultimately led him to fall far enough behind that he had to stay at school a fifth year — taking on more debt.
“Trying to balance full-time work and a full-time course load, I just wasn’t ready for it,” Bayne said.
Note: This story has been modified to add detail comparing the debt load and state grant level of the average Arizona student to national averages.