Budget Cuts Slam Public Colleges, Putting Economic Recovery At Risk

Cuts to public colleges and universities over the past five years have been remarkably deep, according to a new report released Tuesday, and likely will be harming students and state economies for years to come—unless state lawmakers take action in current legislative sessions.

This year, states are spending about 28 percent less on higher education than they did in 2008, before the country’s epic recession hit, according to researchers at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP). In eleven states, funding for higher education has been cut by more than a third. In two, Arizona and New Hampshire, it has been slashed in half.

These are serious blows to community colleges and state universities that rely heavily on state funding to open their doors, provide job training and academic programs to students, and send them into much-needed careers. The researchers note that states provide about 53 percent of revenue that supports instruction at these schools. When those funds are cut, schools are forced to either cut services and programs or raise tuition — and both are terrible options for students and state economies!

We know that a college degree is a ticket to the middle class. High school graduates are much more likely to be unemployed, and much less likely to own homes. So when colleges cut programs or turn away students — those students lose out on promising futures. And it’s happening. Between 2008 and 2012, California community college enrollment decreased by 485,000 students and course offerings were reduced by about 15 percent, thanks to severe state budget cuts, according to the California Community College Association, an NEA affiliate. Meanwhile, at 87 percent of those colleges, staff also has been cut.

And, according to this week’s report, it’s not just California. In public colleges and universities across the country, faculty have been cut, campuses have been closed, academic programs have been eliminated, computer labs have been shuttered, library hours and holdings have been reduced, among other cuts. In Arizona, “the state university system cut more than 2,100 positions, merged, consolidated or eliminated 182 colleges, schools, programs and departments; and closed eight extension campuses (local campuses that facilitate distance learning),” the report said.

Meanwhile, tuition rates continue to rise and students continue to rely on student loans to pay for college. Annual published tuition at four-year public colleges has risen 27 percent on average since 2008, according to the CBPP report. In Arizona and California, it’s up more than 70 percent. Meanwhile, the average college graduate leaves school with $26,000 in student loan debt — and some have tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars more.

So students are denied opportunities, for sure. But curtailing public higher education also means restricting economic growth at a time when the nation needs it most. This country needs college-educated workers. A recent Georgetown University also shows that the United States will need 22 million of them by 2018 — but likely will fall short by 3 million.

So what’s next? The CBPP — and the NEA — strongly hopes that states will consider new sources of revenue for public higher education. “Renewing investment in higher education to promote college affordability and quality should be an urgent priority for state policymakers,” the CBPP researchers write. “Strengthening state investment in higher education will require state policymakers to make the right tax and budget choices over the coming years.”