As state funding has dwindled, public colleges have raised tuition and are now resorting to even more desperate measures — cutting training for jobs the economy needs most.
Technical, engineering and health care expertise are among the few skills in huge demand even in today’s lackluster job market. They are also, unfortunately, some of the most expensive subjects to teach. As a result, state colleges in Nebraska, Nevada, South Dakota, Colorado, Michigan, Florida and Texas have eliminated entire engineering and computer science departments.
At one community college in North Carolina — a state with a severe nursing shortage — nursing program applicants so outnumber available slots that there is a waiting list just to get on the waiting list.
This squeeze is one result of the states’ 25-year withdrawal from higher education. During and immediately after the last few recessions , states slashed financing for colleges. Then when the economy recovered, most states never fully restored the money that had been cut. The recent recession has amplified the problem.
“There has been a shift from the belief that we as a nation benefit from higher education, to a belief that it’s the people receiving the education who primarily benefit and so they should foot the bill,” said Ronald Ehrenberg, the director of the Cornell Higher Education Research Institute and a trustee of the State University of New York system.
Even large tuition increases have not fully offset state cuts, since many state legislatures cap how much colleges can charge for each course. So classes get bigger, tenured faculty members are replaced with adjuncts and technical courses are sacrificed.
State appropriations for colleges fell by 7.6 percent in 2011-12, the largest annual decline in at least five decades, according to a report from the Center for the Study of Education Policy at Illinois State University. In one extreme example, Arizona has slashed its college budget by 31 percent since the recession began in 2007.
It is this cumulative public divestment — and not extravagances like climbing walls or recreational centers advertised on a few elite campuses — that is primarily responsible for skyrocketing tuitions at state institutions, which enroll three out of every four college students.
Colleges have found ways to hold costs per student relatively steady. Since 1985, the average amount that public institutions spend on teaching each full-time student over the course of a year has barely budged, hovering around an inflation-adjusted $10,000, according to a State Higher Education Executive Officers report. But in the same period, the share of instruction costs paid for by actual tuition — not the sticker price, but the amount students actually pay after financial aid — has nearly doubled, to 40 percent from 23 percent.
“I understand why students are angry,” said George Blumenthal, the chancellor of the University of California, Santa Cruz, where student protests have erupted. “They have to write bigger checks every year, and they can’t get into the classes they want. The reality is they’re paying more and getting less.”
In cutting educational subsidies, states may be penny-wise and pound-foolish, Ehrenberg said.
Economists have found that higher education benefits communities even more than it benefits the individual receiving the degree. Studies show that an educated populace leads to faster economic growth and a more stable democracy, and benefits the poorest workers the most. The post World War II economic boom, for example, has been attributed to increased college enrollment thanks to the G.I. Bill.
Less-skilled workers have much to gain from enrolling in higher education, given the wage premium that additional training brings. State funding cuts not only reduce the ability for the poor to receive more training, but also disproportionately limit access to the fields that are most important to economic and job growth: sciences, engineering and health care.
These courses are especially expensive to teach partly because of equipment and safety precautions. Because these skills are in such high demand, professors also have more opportunities in the private sector and so can command higher pay.