"Everyone" knows that the future of the US economy depends on a well-educated workforce, and on a growing share of students achieving higher levels of education. But state spending patterns on higher education aren't backing up this belief. Here are some figures from the SHEF 2017: State Higher Education Finance report published last month by the State Higher Education Executive Officers Association.
The bars in this figure shows per-student sending on pubic higher education by state and local government from all sources of funding, with the lower blue part of the bar showing government spending and the upper green part of the bar showing spending based on tuition revenue from students. The red line shows enrolments in public colleges, which have gone flat or even declined a little since the Great Recession.
This figure clarifies a pattern that is apparent from the green bars in the above figure: the share of spending on public higher education that comes from tuition has been rising. It was around 29-31% of total spending in the 1990s, up to about 35-36% in the middle of the first decade of the 2000s, and in recent years has been pushing 46-47%. That's a big shift in a couple of decades.
The reliance on tuition for state public education varies wildly across states, with less than 15% of total spending on public higher ed coming from tuition in Wyoming and California, and 70% or more of total spending on public higher education coming from tuition in Michigan, Colorado, Pennsylvania, Delaware, New Hampshire, and Vermont.
There are lots of issues in play here: competing priorities for state and local spending, rising costs of higher education, the returns from higher education that encourage students (and their families) to pay for it, and so on. For the moment, I'll just say that it doesn't seem like a coincidence that the tuition share of public higher education costs is rising at the same time that enrolment levels are flat or declining.
A version of this article first appeared on Conversable Economist.
Timothy Taylor is an American economist. He is managing editor of the Journal of Economic Perspectives, a quarterly academic journal produced at Macalester College and published by the American Economic Association. Taylor received his Bachelor of Arts degree from Haverford College and a master's degree in economics from Stanford University. At Stanford, he was winner of the award for excellent teaching in a large class (more than 30 students) given by the Associated Students of Stanford University. At Minnesota, he was named a Distinguished Lecturer by the Department of Economics and voted Teacher of the Year by the master's degree students at the Hubert H. Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs. Taylor has been a guest speaker for groups of teachers of high school economics, visiting diplomats from eastern Europe, talk-radio shows, and community groups. From 1989 to 1997, Professor Taylor wrote an economics opinion column for the San Jose Mercury-News. He has published multiple lectures on economics through The Teaching Company. With Rudolph Penner and Isabel Sawhill, he is co-author of Updating America's Social Contract (2000), whose first chapter provided an early radical centrist perspective, "An Agenda for the Radical Middle". Taylor is also the author of The Instant Economist: Everything You Need to Know About How the Economy Works, published by the Penguin Group in 2012. The fourth edition of Taylor's Principles of Economics textbook was published by Textbook Media in 2017.