A decade since the Great Recession hit, state spending on public colleges and universities remains well below historical levels. Overall state funding for public two- and four-year colleges in the school year ending in 2018 was more than $7 billion below its 2008 level, after adjusting for inflation. (See Figure 1.) In the most difficult years after the recession, colleges responded to significant funding cuts by increasing tuition, reducing faculty, limiting course offerings, and in some cases closing campuses. OVERALL STATE FUNDING FOR PUBLIC TWO- AND FOUR-YEAR COLLEGES IN THE SCHOOL YEAR ENDING IN 2018 WAS MORE THAN $7 BILLION BELOW ITS 2008 LEVEL.Funding has rebounded slightly since then, but costs remain high and services in some places have not returned.
The promise to past generations of students in America has been that if you work hard and strive, public colleges and universities will serve as an avenue to greater economic opportunity and upward mobility. For today’s students — a cohort more racially and economically diverse than any before it — that promise is fading.
Rising tuition threatens affordability and access leaving students and their families –– including those whose annual wages have stagnated or fallen over recent decades — either saddled with onerous debt or unable to afford college altogether. This is especially true for students of color (who have historically faced large barriers to attending college), low-income students, and students from non-traditional backgrounds. Higher costs jeopardize not only the prospects of those individual students but also the outlook for whole communities and states, which are increasingly reliant on highly educated workforces to grow and thrive.
To build a prosperous economy — one in which the benefits of higher education are broadly shared and felt by every community regardless of race or class — lawmakers will need to invest in high-quality, affordable, and accessible public higher education by increasing funding for public two- and four-year colleges and by pursuing policies that allow more students to pursue affordable postsecondary education.