On Campus Blog

10 consequences of state cuts to public higher education

When states cut spending on higher education, it's not just a matter of colleges doing more with less.

The consequences appear to go much further.

The long decline in state funding for higher education -- lasting a couple of decades or more in some states -- appears to have caused or accelerated some major changes in how some state-run colleges and universities function, judging from what I've been reading and hearing over the past year.

The trend is so strong it has caused CFOs of public colleges and universities to rank declining state funding as, in the words of the Chronicle of Higher Education, "far and away the most worrisome factor facing their institutions."

Below is a list I've made of the developments that appear to be linked to that rollback.

The background: Budget cutbacks

This year, at least 20 states proposed cutting hundreds of millions of dollars -- up to a billion dollars in California's case -- from higher-education funding. For some -- such as California and Minnesota -- 2011's final cut reportedly represents the largest in their histories. Many proposals ranged from 10-20 percent (see chart), and in another dozen states or so, proposed cuts went up to 5 percent.

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The size of the actual cuts varies from system to system and even school to school, but news reports show cuts in the following states:

  • California (20 percent)

  • Minnesota (10.5 percent)

  • New Hampshire (20-48 percent)

  • Washington (24 percent)

  • Pennsylvania (19 percent)

  • Michigan (15 percent)

  • Arizona (24 percent)

  • Colorado (20.9 percent)

  • Texas (14 percent)

  • Nevada, (15 percent)

  • Utah (14 percent)


It's not just a one-off. In many cases, this year's cuts are part of a 10-15-year trend in which states have been scaling back their commitment to funding higher education. Just last year, state support per student hit a 25-year low, according to Paul Lingenfelter of the State Higher Education Executive Officers.

A few examples:

The great rollback in California has prompted University of California Chancellor Mark Yudof to remark:

"If that's not a sign of being an unreliable partner, I don't know what is."

So what have the consequences been?

1) Tuition increases

Tuition is the traditional way for public schools to make up for cuts in state funding. So as state spending has increased, tuition has steadily risen. Some states have reported year after year of increases that have caused tuition to double in some states. (See sidebar)

2) Less financial aid

Though some awards are up, a number of states are cutting. Ohio cut need-based grants the most: 66%. Alaska and Michigan: 50%. Hawaii and Utah: 33%. Cuts or freezes have also been proposed in Arkansas, Florida, New Mexico and Tennessee. Minnesota has cut back on its often generous (often full-ride) Promise Scholarship. Georgia's HOPE Scholarship, a full ride for all high school students earning a B, is now partial.

3) More out-of-state students

Colleges and universities are courting more students across state lines because the schools can charge them more -- two to three times more than in-state students, in many cases.

In addition to the University of Minnesota, a quarter of whose students come from out of state, universities in Arizona, Texas and Washington have started recruiting more or have announced they'll do so. Out-of-state students account for 18 percent of admissions at the University of California system, compared to 12 percent two years ago. At UCLA and Berkeley, that figure is about 30%.

At the University of Colorado - Boulder, for example, one professor writes that because a third of the students come from out of state, "the result is that almost two-thirds of the university's total tuition revenue comes from one-third of its students."

Such practices are reportedly causing resentment among prospective in-state students who feel locked out of a system they feel should serve them.

4) Student migration

It's not just other states' universities that students are seeking out. Some students once headed for public universities are setting their sights on privates. Macalester College President Brian Rosenberg has written that he's getting students who need the

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Tuition will vary from college to college and even program to program, so here's a sampling of some of the tuition increases seen in various states:

  • Wisconsin: 5.5 percent (with similar increases in the past several years)


college's more generous financial aid policy, or just want to get away from "larger classes, fewer faculty members, and declining graduation rates at the publics."

And some California students, tired of struggling to get the classes they need in pared-back programs, are looking at private colleges despite their higher expense.

5) Less time to explore

Pressured to provide education to more students despite the limited number of seats, universities in Minnesota and Utah, for example, are considering charging those who have enough credits to graduate (but don't) more per credit than other students. The higher cost of further classes is suppose to prompt them to graduate, though it could be costly for students who are finding themselves, or have changed their majors late in the game.

6) More adjuncts, less academic freedom

With less money to spend on teaching staff, universities are increasingly turning to adjunct faculty -- part-time, usually with no benefits -- because they're a cheaper alternative to tenured faculty. A college can cover three to four times the number of classes with adjuncts than with tenured faculty, one Texas professor has estimated, and Governor Branstad of Iowa recently announced it was a budget-saving measure his state was taking.

A decade ago, a third of all faculty were adjuncts. One estimate puts it about fifty percent now. It's at least 60 percent at community colleges -- which had only 20 percent on average 40 years ago. It's not necessarily just a college-by-college choice, either. Texas tried last year to replace some tenured faculty with adjuncts.

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"Almost two-thirds of the university's total tuition revenue comes from one-third of its students."

-- Professor Roger Pielke Jr. of the University of Colorado at Boulder.


The problem? It's not that adjuncts aren't qualified. But critics say many are overworked, running from college to college several times a day, with no office, no training, support or other resources, little academic freedom and low pay. As a result, many adjuncts say they have less time to with students.

The debate has been not whether a college should use adjuncts, but how many. Widespread use of adjuncts has raised concerns that student performance is suffering as a result, but the jury may still be out.

Adjuncts' lack of academic freedom, and its hard-to-quantify consequences, are also an issue. Adjuncts complain their evaluations are often solely reliant on the whims of student evaluations and administrative politics, which creates pressure to give easy grades and avoid controversial subjects.

7) De facto privatization

After Northern Arizona University CFO Jennus L. Burton watched state funding drop from a third of the university's budget to less than a quarter, he told the Chronicle of Higher Education, "Northern Arizona University is becoming a semiprivate university."

He's not alone in making such a comparison.

A wave of de facto privatization is hitting public colleges and universities around the nation as private money (such as tuition, donations, grants and revenue from side businesses) replaces public money -- until state support is merely token.

Although American students at public research universities pay about half the cost of their education on average -- and those at privates about 56 percent -- 14 states had universities that took 60 percent or more of their revenues from tuition and fees, according to Delta Project on Postsecondary Education Costs, Productivity, and Accountability data published in the Chronicle. Those students at public research universities in Colorado, Montana, New Hampshire, Oregon, and Vermont pay more than 70 percent, and students at the University of Vermont pay 83 percent.

(That's looking at the amount of money coming in from tuition. If you add other sources of non-state money, the state's share is even smaller. The University of Michigan, for example, now counts state funding at just 7 percent of its budget. The University of Oregon is at 9 percent.)

That has prompted a number of universities -- such as those Colorado, Oregon, Massachusetts and Virginia -- to pursue more autonomy in an attempt to get free of costly state regulations in areas such as purchasing decisions, hiring, tuition levels, and construction.

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“Northern Arizona University is becoming a semiprivate university.”

-- Northern Arizona University CFO Jennus L. Burton


(It has also prompted some lawmakers -- such as in Colorado and Michigan -- to propose saving the state money by severing the state's relationship to the universities there.) Pushes for autonomy have also occurred at the campus level in Louisiana and school/departmental level in California and Minnesota.

8) Private-style variations in pricing

Although tuition is often the same across degrees and campuses in the same state system, that appears to be changing. We're seeing a push for "market-based" tuition -- such as what's found in graduate programs in Florida and in Virginia -- in which public institutions charge more for the more popular (or expensive) programs, charge more at selected campuses, or charge more to those students seen as wealthy enough to pay.

That last element is part of a "high tuition/fee - high aid" tuition model in which wealthier students effectively subsidize those with lower incomes. But the practice has raised concerns over whether it really improves access to higher education or the quality of instruction. Critics fear the model, among other things, sends low-income students into "sticker shock" or forces them to take on high debt, while prompting wealthier students to consider private schools.

9) Increasing role of soft money

Colleges and universities, especially research universities, must rely ever more on “soft money” – outside money from research grants, corporations and private donors -- especially in the hard sciences and medicine.

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"If that's not a sign of being an unreliable partner, I don't know what is."

-- UC Chancellor Mark Yudof


The practice has long raised concerns over two central questions: Who calls the shots under soft money operations -- the state or the donor? And who is served -- the public good or the commercial or ideological needs of the donors?

That's because donors might put strings on the money, critics say, deciding what's to be researched, taught or published. Or they  might push universities to stifle research that goes against their interests.

Two fairly recent examples:

  • Toyota in Carbondale. After a Southern Illinois University professor conducted research last year that he said showed that faulty electronics were the cause of Toyota's high-profile sudden-acceleration problem, Toyota, a big donor, turned on the heat. One Toyota employee questioned whether the school should continue to employ the professor, two Toyota employees resigned as advisers to Southern Illinois' auto technology program, and Toyota took back offers to fund two internships.

  • Florida State and the Koch Foundation A foundation funded by Charles Koch, a libertarian, caused an uproar when it gave $1.5 million to the Florida State University economics department. Its agreement allowed the foundation influence in the hiring and evaluation of professors, set up a "market ethics" course that had Ayn Rand as required reading, and started an "Economics Club" that promoted free enterprise.

10) Fewer four-year, two-year graduations?

Remember the budgetary need to push students to graduate on time? That very need could itself be preventing on-time graduations.

State spending cuts mean fewer professors and fewer courses, and a number of students have complained they haven't been able to take the classes they need to graduate on time.

The problem might be more severe at community colleges, some of which are finding they don't have the capacity for the increasing enrollment during economic hard times. They have no endowments, and so rely more on state funding (along with tuition and local taxes) than many four-year schools.

The ones who suffer aren't just middle-class, bachelor's-bound students, but often lower-income students, remedial students and unemployed workers who need retraining -- three groups less able to afford tuition increases.

The remedial students could take another hit because of cuts. Some experts question whether the increased use of adjuncts -- which I've mentioned above -- has possibly made it harder for community colleges to improve those students' performance.

The Hechinger Report writes:

More than half of community-college courses are taught by part-time, adjunct professors who typically make $1,000 to $3,000 per course and who don’t get benefits.The widespread use of adjuncts has led to questions about the quality of adjunct faculty, who are largely untenured and often have little to no training in or experience teaching remedial classes.


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