By Mike Mulvihill
NPR ran a segment today (What’s Driving College Costs Higher?) featuring Kevin Carey, the director of the Education Policy Program at the New America Foundation, portraying the nation’s growing student debt crisis as the result of excessive spending by colleges and universities, which drives up tuition, and declining government support for public universities as state and local governments face budget crises.
The story’s timing is due to the impeding bewitching hour for student loan rates, which in a few days are set to double from the current 3.5 percent rate for millions of Americans if Congress can’t agree on legislation.
Carey accurately points out that that college tuition has consistently increased much faster than both inflation and incomes. And, that a major accelerant to rising college costs includes administrative and teaching costs, scholarships, sports teams and elaborate new construction projects. But other than in his opening statement, he fails to acknowledge the equally significant role of decreased state funding for public universities.
According to the Chronicle of Higher Education, public university tuition revenues today cover about 50 percent of expenditures, up from about 40 percent a decade ago. According to the State Higher Education Executive Officers association, that number was less than 25 percent in the mid-1980s.
And the problem is accelerating. An annual study of state spending on higher education found that state appropriations for colleges and students sunk by 7.6 percent in 2011-12, the largest such decline in at least a half century.
The annual Grapevine study, conducted by the Illinois State University Center for the Study of Higher Education and the State Higher Education Executive Officers, found that all but nine states experienced one-year declines from their 2010-11 totals. The 41 states that cut their spending did so by as little as 1 percent (in Indiana and North Carolina) to as much as 41 percent (New Hampshire), with a third of all states posting double-digit drops.
For decades, government has been weaning public colleges and universities from taxpayer funding. But as usual, taxpayers who actually use those services then pay more – often much more – to access these same services. As a nation, unless our states again look to fund public higher education with the aim of maintaining U.S. global leadership, Mr. Carey is exactly correct: the student debt crisis reflects a larger, (more) troubling trend in higher education.