WASHINGTON: Making college more affordable to more people continues to be elusive, and the recent recession hasn’t made it any easier.
States have cut their support for public colleges and universities — deeply, in some cases — and schools have raised tuition as a result. They’ve also dropped classes, eliminated faculty and reduced other services to compensate.
For high school seniors nervously waiting for admissions decisions this spring from public colleges and universities, the recession’s impact might mean fewer acceptances, in some cases, and higher costs for many who do get in, according to a study on the impact of state education cuts by the liberal-leaning Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.
“A lot of groups are calling for states to figure out a long-term strategy for funding higher ed,” said Julie Bell, the education program director for the National Conference of State Legislatures. “Almost nobody thinks states are going to return to where they were.”
States began trimming their budgets after the recession took hold in 2008, according to the center, a research group that studies the impact of government spending on low- and moderate-income people. Few took steps — such as raising taxes — to replace what they’d lost, it noted.
“It’s a really dangerous trend” because tuition will keep growing beyond what increasing numbers of people can pay, said Phil Oliff, an author of the report.
More than three-quarters of U.S. undergraduates are enrolled in public colleges and universities, according to federal data. More than half of the money those schools received last year came from local governments, and most of that was tax revenue, the center reported.
But from Massachusetts to New Mexico, states on average are spending less per student — about $2,350 a year, or 28 percent — than they did five years ago, the center said.
Eleven have cut their financial support per student by more than a third, it found, while states such as Florida, Idaho, South Carolina and Washington have slashed even deeper, cutting back college support by nearly 40 percent or more.
Annual tuition at four-year-public colleges increased, meanwhile, by an average of $1,850 — 27 percent — from 2008 to 2013, adjusting for inflation.
The College Board reported last fall that the average tuition and fees at four-year public universities totaled $8,655 for the 2012-13 school year.
Beyond tuition, the report noted that schools have found other ways to compensate for the loss in state aid: “Public colleges and universities also have cut faculty positions, eliminated course offerings, closed campuses, shut down computer labs and reduced library services, among other cuts.”
At the same time that states and the schools they support grapple with money problems, student loan debt has been growing. Twenty years ago, fewer than half of students at four-year public and private institutions graduated with loans, according to Lauren Asher, the president of the Institute for College Access and Success, a nonprofit group that’s working to make college more accessible.
Now, two-thirds shoulder an average debt of $26,600.
“The big driver of student debt is college costs have risen faster than family income and the availability of grant aid,” Asher said.
States are starting to put budgets in place for next year. But without knowing what the federal budget for higher education will look like — such as whether Pell Grants, which aid low-income students — will continue and in what form, “it makes it very hard for them to plan,” Bell said.