Deep Recession Cuts at State Colleges and Universities Persist

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College funding

March 12, 2015;Inside Higher Ed

During the recession, many states slashed their higher education budgets, affecting students at their community colleges as well as four-year universities. Now that the recession is over, some states are beginning to increase spending to make up for lost ground. Unfortunately, Arizona is part of a small number that’s continuing to cut resources.

Last week, Arizona’s governor and legislature voted to eradicate state funding of two of their largest state community college systems, Maricopa and Pima. These cuts follow additional decreases in 2011 and 2012 of over $38 million and add up to approximately $80 million over a seven-year period. Thankfully, the Legislature saved the third, Central Arizona College in Pinal County. This system will continue to receive $2 million in state support.

These cuts are in addition to cuts in funding across the Arizona college system. In turn, university leaders are drastically increasing tuition, leading to an escalation in student debt as well as a decrease in the quality of education offered. According to the Center on Budget and Public Priorities, Arizona tuition at four-year colleges increased by almost $4,500 per student, or more than 80 percent (adjusted for inflation) since the 2007-8 school year. At the same time, faculty was reduced by over 2100 positions, and 182 colleges, school programs and departments were reduced as well as the elimination of eight extension or distant learning programs.

Throughout the country, state funding per student is down 23 percent, or over $2,000, due to the recession. All states except Alaska and North Dakota are spending less than they did before the recession. These cuts in funding are at a time when colleges are struggling to educate more students. Over one million or 10 percent more full-time students have enrolled since the recession. These are diverse students, including 18- through 24-year-olds who are part of the “baby boom echo” as well as older workers looking to retool and gain new skills.


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Although many are turned away from higher education as tuition rises, those that enroll are seeing a growth in student debt. By the last quarter of 2013, student debt across all institutions swelled to $1.08 trillion, more than car loans and credit card debt. In four years, the median amount of those with student debt obtaining a bachelor’s degree at a four-year public institution grew from $11,900 to $14,300 (in 2012 dollars.) This translates to a 20 percent increase.

Increased tuition is leading to a growth in inequality between low-income and equally qualified upper-income students. According to a 2008 article by Georgetown University scholar Anthony Carnevale, tuition increases led to highly qualified students (top testing 25 percent) from upper income families going to four-year colleges at almost twice the rate of low-income equally qualified students.

Thankfully, in the last year many states have begun to rebuild their college systems. States like Tennessee are dramatically increasing government support of their community colleges. In addition, ten states increased funding to their public college systems. The largest increases per pupil were in New Hampshire with an increase of 28.5 percent, North Dakota increased by 20.3 percent and Florida with an increase of 18.8 percent. While these increases are encouraging, eight other states continue to cut government funds. The largest decrease was in Wyoming where state government slashed funding by 7.2 percent.

Unlike the state government leaders, who are unable to see the connection between strong community college systems and productive workforces, Arizona corporations like Marriott International, Ford, and Amazon are teaming with Maricopa to create Maricopa Corporate College. These new partnerships are offsetting a portion of the state’s cuts. In addition to the concerns these types of partnerships create, the community college system is limited by the amount of private funds it can raise due to legal regulations.

In Arizona, Maricopa college leaders voted to not raise tuition. Instead, they are focused on increasing funds from alumni as well as other development efforts.—Gayle Nelson

  • Margaret Brown

    I question the statement that Wyoming “slashed” funding by 7.2 percent. What is this based on? The Legislature is very supportive of the University and community colleges–and the only way we would have “slashed” funding by this amount is by not funding totally some requested increases. That’s not the same as “slashing” funding. Please check your supposed facts, as this makes me question the rest of the article, too.