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Higher Ed Funding Down in Nearly Every State Over Past Decade

A decade since the Great Recession hit, state spending on public colleges and universities remains well below historic levels, despite recent increases, our major new report details.

Overall state funding for public two- and four-year colleges in the 2017 school year (that is, the school year ending in 2017) was nearly $9 billion below its 2008 level, after adjusting for inflation. The funding decline has contributed to higher tuition and reduced quality on campuses as colleges have had to balance budgets by reducing faculty, limiting course offerings, and in some cases closing campuses. At a time when the benefit of a college education has never been greater, state policymakers have made college less affordable and less accessible to the students most in need.

After adjusting for inflation:

  • Of the 49 states (all except Wisconsin) analyzed over the 2008-2017 period, 44 spent less per student in the 2017 school year than in 2008. The only states spending more than in 2008 were Indiana, Montana, Nebraska, North Dakota, and Wyoming. (See graph.)
  • States cut funding deeply after the recession hit. The average state spent $1,448, or 16 percent, less per student in 2017 than in 2008.
  • Per-student funding in eight states — Alabama, Arizona, Illinois, Louisiana, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, and South Carolina — fell by more than 30 percent over this period.
  • In 13 states, per-student funding fell between the 2016 and 2017 school years. In five of these states — Alaska, Kansas, Oklahoma, West Virginia, and Wisconsin — funding also fell the previous year. (The 2016-2017 analysis includes all states except Illinois.)
  • Of the states analyzed between the 2016 and 2017 school years, 36 states increased per-student funding. In these states per-student funding rose $170, or 2.2 percent.

As states have slashed higher education funding, the price of attending public colleges has risen significantly faster than what families can afford. For the average student at a four-year public college, increases in federal student aid and the availability of tax credits have not kept up, jeopardizing the ability of many to afford the college education that is key to their long-term financial success.

With many states facing revenue shortfalls this fiscal year — or having dealt with them in the past fiscal year — state lawmakers must renew their commitment to high-quality, affordable public higher education by increasing the revenue these schools receive. By doing so, they can help build a stronger middle class and develop the entrepreneurs and skilled workers needed for a strong state economy.