Of the 21 million students in higher education in America, nearly 75 percent are in public institutions, roughly equally divided between two-year and four-year campuses. Although the total number of students grew steadily until three years ago, the distribution in public versus private, and two-year versus four-year, has stayed relatively steady over the past decade.
What hasn’t stayed steady is the level of state financial support for public institutions, and the level of regard the public at large has for its state institutions. These two factors are related, as I will demonstrate shortly.
First, a few facts:
In 2000, in 47 states, financial support from the state to public institutions exceeded the amount collected in tuition and fees from the students and their families. By 2012, that was true for only 26 states. (The Chronicle of Higher Education, “An Era of Neglect,” March 7, 2014)
At the current rate of decline in state appropriations to public higher education, by 2040 eleven states will no longer be supporting public higher education at all. (The Chronicle of Higher Education, “An Era of Neglect,” March 7, 2014)
Forty-nine states spent less per higher education student in 2012 than they did in 2008, and in 28 states, the reduction has been greater than 25 percent. (Inside Higher Ed, “Progressive Groups Launch New Campaign to Tackle Student Debt, College Affordability,” March 7, 2014)
Measured in constant 2012 dollars, at the national level total spending per public higher education student has risen just 10 dollars (to $11,095 per year) in the last 25 years. (The Chronicle of Higher Education, “An Era of Neglect,” March 7, 2014)
National per-pupil expenditures in 2012 for K-12 education was $11,068 – just $27 less than was spent per higher education student. (NEA Rankings and Estimates, December 2012)
The four-year graduation rate from public universities has been approximately 21 percent for the last decade. (Inside Higher Ed, “Progressive Groups Launch New Campaign to Tackle Student Debt, College Affordability,” March 7, 2014)
Many of the 14 universities in the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education have seen drops in enrollment of as much as 18 percent in just the past three years. (TribLive, “Chancellor Brogan Angles to Retool Universities in Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education,” March 9, 2014)
Division I athletics costs most of the flagship publics far more than it generates in revenue (Inside Higher Ed, “Rutgers Boosts Athletic Subsidies to Nearly $50 Million,” Feb. 25, 2014)
Only 30 percent of low-income students enroll in college directly from high school, and only nine percent earn a bachelor’s degree by the age of 25. (Forbes, “Getting More Low-Income Students into College Isn’t about the Money, It’s about the Curriculum,” March 4, 2014)
Sixty-four percent of public university students borrow to finance their education, and their average debt at graduation in 2012 was $25,640, up from $19,947 in 2004. (New America Policy Brief, “The Student Debt Review,” February 2014)
- Even though the earnings gap between college graduates and high school graduates has never been wider ($17,500 per year), only 31 percent of Americans think that a college degree is “worth it.” (Inside Higher Ed, “Wage Advantage for College-Educated Millennials,” Feb. 12, 2014, and “Poll Finds Mixed Public Attitudes on Higher Education Issues,” March 10, 2014)
How could all this have happened? How did we, as a country, go from once providing huge subsidies to make public institutions affordable for millions of students from modest backgrounds, thereby enabling them to climb the ladder of social mobility, to a point today where fewer than two in five Americans, in a recent poll, said that they strongly supported giving more state support to public colleges and universities (The Chronicle of Higher Education, “From Public Good to Private Good,” March 3, 2014)?
(The reader might also reasonably ask why the president of a private university would be addressing these concerns. In the interests of full disclosure, I received both my baccalaureate and masters from public universities, and, prior to joining Roger Williams University in 2011, I spent 43 years working at two flagship public universities and two masters’ level state universities. I left public higher education in large measure because I tired of the constant drumbeat of negativity from elected officials regarding public institutions. I believe, at least in the near term, that our nation’s economic future rests largely on the ability of private institutions to create “affordable excellence” for their students.)
Consider: The GI Bill of 1944 provided four years of tuition, at $500 per year (at the time, more than any university in the country was actually charging), plus $65 per month living expenses, allowing more than two million veterans to attend college before the program ended in 1956. For a total investment of public funds over 12 years of just $5.5 billion, the GI Bill transformed America, both economically and socially.
The spirit of the GI Bill continued through the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s, as hundreds of new public colleges and universities were constructed, allowing millions of young people a highly affordable opportunity to obtain a college or university degree, and the economic advantages that came with that level of education. We demonstrated, as no country before ever had, the enormous benefits of investing public funds in higher education.
But by the 1980s, our collective enthusiasm for this kind of public investment had waned. A university degree was increasingly perceived as more of a private benefit than a public good, and there were other demands being placed on state budgets. For example, Medicaid costs represented approximately 10 percent of state budgets in 1987. By 2012, Medicaid costs had risen to 24 percent. The prison industry was another rising claimant on the public purse – and, after all, colleges and universities could always increase their tuition, a type of self-help not available to Medicaid or prisons.
Next week: Part 2.