Blog: The Educated Reporter

Do States Undervalue Higher Education?

Students and faculty at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee rally against proposed state budget cuts to higher education. (Flickr/marctasman)

Tuition caps, budget cuts and wayward priorities when it comes to funding higher education — oh, my.

It’s time for states to decide the value of higher education. Or rather, it’s time for state leaders to decide if they value higher education enough to fund it properly.

That was the sentiment shared among panelists during a discussion of state funding for higher education at EWA’s recent National Seminar in Chicago. The speakers were Daniel Hurley of the American Association of State Colleges and Universities, Laura Perna of the University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education and Ray Scheppach, who is a University of Virginia senior fellow for economic policy.

“It’s an interesting intersection we’ve approached,” Washington Post consumer finance reporter Danielle Douglas-Gabriel, the panel moderator, said. “It’s time to decide what path to take at a time where researchers are showing that people benefit from college.”

A few states were immediately identified for their best and worst practices: North Dakota and Alaska had legislative leadership that prioritized higher education funding; Wisconsin, Louisiana and several others have governors or legislatures that are calling for cuts.

“The trickle-down effect that higher education has on the state and the nation is pretty profound,” Hurley said, stressing that’s all the more reason to prioritize it.

Since the recession, states have rebounded for support of colleges and universities overall, Hurley said, averaging a 5 percent increase per year. In fact, 2014 saw a 5.7 percent average increase for state funding.

Still, states are only providing, on average, about 51 percent of the overall cost for higher education, meaning the remainder is largely on the backs of students and families. Hurley said that’s the first time in seven years that states are paying more — barely — than students.

If states continue to put funding on the backburner, the consequences could affect other parts of the economy.

“The GDP will grow slowly because of smaller workforce entry,” Scheppach said. “And then state revenues and spending will slow as well.”

In terms of solutions coming out of colleges and universities with leaders who are trying to get creative, there are massive open online courses, or MOOCs, along with more traditional online education, but Hurley said the market demand for the “traditional undergraduate experience” is still the focus.

Perna isn’t convinced that the nation has seen any alternative from institutions yet that will prove to be sustainable. She identified state funding as “one of the most important issues facing higher education today,” tying decreasing state support to decreased levels of access for underrepresented student populations.

In addition to battling leadership across states while working on alternative solutions, Scheppach said institutions are also walking a fine line on tuition increases.

There are some systemic reasons picked up in polling showing why higher education is low on even the public’s priority list in terms of funding.

“Higher education funding, in a way, is lower hanging fruit,” Hurley said. “You can keep tuition flat for a lot less money than it would be to mess with K through 12. College affordability is just not that high on the radar. It’s in the four to five range in in polling among the public (out of a scale up to 10).”

Systemic or not, Douglas-Gabriel asked the panel to consider what stories are worth pursuing for journalists.

Hurley suggested engaging the business communities on their talent pipeline and where they think higher education funding should be to meet their business needs.

But, if journalists want to be proactive instead of reactive, Hurley said they need to keep institutions accountable and transparent about what they’re doing to maintain the cost and mitigate tuition or fee hikes.