American Higher Education Hits a Dangerous Milestone

North Carolina State University in Raleigh

North Carolina State University in Raleigh Shutterstock

As younger generations become more racially diverse, many states are allocating fewer tax dollars to public colleges and universities.

Drawing almost no attention, the nation crossed an ominous milestone last year that threatens more economic polarization and social division: For the first time, public colleges and universities in most states received most of their revenue from tuition rather than government appropriations.

This historic shift away from tax dollars funding the bulk of public higher education comes precisely as the nation’s youth population is crossing a succession of milestones to become more racially diverse than ever. As statisticians would say, it’s an open question whether these twin trends represent an example of causation or just correlation. But whether resources are shrinking because diversity is growing, or the two trends are proceeding independently, their convergence is still a dangerous development—not only for higher education, but also for the nation’s economic future.

Yet as this transformation has unfolded, states have notably retrenched their support for public higher education. The latest annual survey of state spending by the State Higher Education Executive Officers found that, since 1992, spending per student—measured in inflation-adjusted dollars—has declined at public colleges and universities by about 8 percent (even after a recovery in spending after states’ low point in 2012). In turn, per-student tuition revenue has increased by 96 percent.

The result has been an enormous shift in cost from the public collectively to parents and students individually. In 1992, tuition accounted for slightly less than three-tenths of the total educational revenue for public colleges and universities. But by 2017, tuition supplied nearly half of the total revenue. In 28 states last year, tuition provided more revenue than public appropriations, SHEEO found. That was the first time a majority of states funded post-secondary education mostly through tuition.

Over this long transition, neither red nor blue states have covered themselves in glory. But the biggest cutbacks in support have often occurred in states that combine large levels of racial diversity with governments that have been usually (or entirely) controlled by Republicans who rely preponderantly on white voters.

According to the SHEEO report, since the recession in 2008, per-student appropriations for public higher education have declined by around one-sixth in Texas, Georgia, and North Carolina; by over one-fifth in Florida and Mississippi; by over one-fourth in South Carolina; by about one-third in Nevada and Alabama; and by over two-fifths in Arizona and Louisiana.

Some Democrat-leaning states have also implemented big cuts in per-pupil support over that period, including Connecticut, Delaware, and Colorado. But the biggest blue states present some notable exceptions to this pattern. New York, Illinois, and California have all increased per-student spending since 2008; and Oregon, Hawaii, and Maryland have held spending almost steady.

The states that now rely most on tuition to fund public higher education are a mélange of red, blue, and purple places, and in most cases their spending seems to reflect their respective traditions over how to apportion costs between parents and taxpayers. But there have been revealing changes in recent years: Previously unpublished data provided to The Atlantic by SHEEO show that it is primarily Republican-controlled states that have shifted responsibility most rapidly from tax resources to tuition since the 2008 recession. Louisiana, Arizona, Alabama, Oklahoma, West Virginia, Georgia, and South Carolina top that list.

Small-government ideology undoubtedly explains part of this shift. But more academic leaders are openly questioning whether other motivations are contributing to it, too. Michael Sorrell, the dynamic and innovative president of Paul Quinn College, a historically black college in Dallas, is one of them. “There’s an argument to be made that part of the reason we see a reduction in support is because the legislators are looking at the students and not seeing themselves,” he told me at an Atlantic education-policy summit this week. “Listen, it could be an unlikely happenstance that people are reducing the support of public education when the students are increasingly diverse and increasingly low-income. Maybe.”

If Sorrell is right, the irony—and tragedy—is that this cost shift threatens the economic security of not only younger minority families, but also older whites, who will depend on an increasingly nonwhite workforce to pay the taxes that fund their Social Security and Medicare in the years ahead. Nowhere is the interdependence of “the brown and the gray” more apparent than in the need to equip more kids of color with the education to reach the middle class. And yet nowhere is the nation more conspicuously failing to recognize its shared destiny than in the states’ faltering commitment to public higher education.

Ronald Brownstein is Atlantic Media's editorial director for strategic partnerships.

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