Blog: The Educated Reporter

More Money or Less Money For College? Two Charts. You Decide.

Are states softening the financial blow for college students or cutting back even further? Two charts from recent articles tell seemingly different tales, but on closer inspection, are complementary. No wonder—they come from the same source. Which raises the question: When it comes to matters of reporting on budgets, is it more accurate to tell readers the glass is half-empty or half-full?

Over at The Atlantic, Jordan Weissman posted a handy illustration of the 38 states that have cut their share of higher education funding since the 2008 fiscal year (see image to the left). During that period, state spending nationally dipped nearly 11 percent, with 12 states cutting back by at least 20 percent. But—apparently—there are some bright spots, too. While California has sheared state higher ed funding by 24 percent, forcing students to pick up the difference, Texas and New York—the second and third most populous states—actually increased their postsecondary budgets slightly, according to Weissman.

The Chronicle of Higher Education emphasizes this optimistic tack in an article, saying students have reason to be hopeful that as the economy accelerates, state coffers for postsecondary education will recover some of their losses. In the current fiscal year, 30 states increased appropriations for higher ed. Some committed a paltry amount—New Mexico saw a .1 percent gain—while other states channeled more robust amounts. Wyoming, the Chronicle points out, leads all states by raising its higher ed spending by 14 percent. That means more money for the institutions and potentially more financial aid for students.

[See EWA's Story Starter on Higher Education Finance]

Even California, land of a Freddy Krueger-like slashing of 24 percent, was buoyed by a voter-approved tax increase in November that led to the California State University system refunding students some tuition money. The state’s governor, Jerry Brown, is eyeing a budget increase for higher ed and financial aid of 4 to 6 percent.

Despite these seemingly disparate views, both publications relied on results from a survey by Illinois State University and the State Higher Education Executive Officers (SHEEO). So which presentation offers the more instructive analysis? *It’s worth pointing out the figures are based on raw data. SHEEO will release a full report that will adjust the numbers to reflect enrollment and inflation changes. 

Perhaps both takes will agree that the drubbing could have been worse. During the Great Recession, as state were reeling from revenue losses, the federal government distributed some $48 billion in education relief that they could use for their fiscal budgets from 2009 through 2011. In return, states that accepted the largesse had to promise to keep their higher education spending levels no lower than 2006 levels.

States have much work to do if they want to return to the halcyon days of support for higher education. In 1990, states spent on average 15 percent of their general funds on higher ed. In 2009, that figure was closer to 12 percent, meaning most students paid more in tuition and fees. The federal government has also swooped in to ease the financial burdens on degree seekers, by expanding the Pell program, for instance, and instituting tax credits to help parents cushion the fiscal impact of sending their kids to college.

However, many congressional lawmakers are eager to pare federal spending, and at least a few analysts have argued the Pell program is unsustainable. Will states pick up that difference or is the trillion dollar student loan debt tally destined to grow?

*This portion of the article was added at 1:42 pm on Friday, Jan. 25, 2013. 

Also See:

Degrees vs. Debt: Making College More Affordable