If historical patterns repeat, public college and university budgets will be slashed, sending tuition and student loan debt skyward. Some institutions will be so starved of funding that they will effectively cease to be “public” at all. Others will have a greatly diminished ability to help students learn. Nationwide, the effect of the last recession on university finances was partly offset by tuition increases financed by federally guaranteed student loans. But that just shifted the problem from one place to another. When Lehman Brothers collapsed in September 2008, Americans owed about $660 billion in outstanding student loan debt. That amount is over $1.6 trillion today. Alarm about the student debt problem grew in volume over the last decade as debt totals climbed. In the future, colleges and universities can’t rely on students and parents borrowing another trillion dollars to make ends meet. Many are already taking out the maximum allowable amount of federal loans.
A survey released this week by Temple University’s Hope Center for College, Community and Justice indicated that 45 percent of student respondents from over 100 institutions said they had been food insecure in the past 30 days. In New York, the nonprofit found that among City University of New York (CUNY) students, 48 percent had been food insecure in the past 30 days. Although the college food-pantry movement is well underway, as there are now over 700 members at the College and University Food Bank Alliance, efforts have recently expanded to include redistributing leftover food from dining halls and catered events, making students eligible for food stamps and other benefits, and perhaps most important, changing national and state education funding to cover living expenses, not just tuition.
Hampshire College serves as a case study for the growing ranks of small liberal arts schools in financial jeopardy. For private colleges, pressures have intensified in regions where the student supply is stagnant or dwindling. Several here in New England are closing or merging. Others around the country have slashed prices, hoping to generate buzz and revenue. Moody’s Investors Service estimated last year that about 1 of every 5 small private colleges is “under fundamental stress.” Inside Higher Ed and Gallup found in a national survey of college and university presidents that one-third predict six to 10 schools will close this year. Nearly as many believe more than 10 will close.
State per-student spending on higher education is rebounding, though it is only halfway back to its pre-recession levels, according to a new report from the State Higher Education Executive Officers Association (SHEEO). Just nine states are back to pre-recession funding levels, while nine have had no recovery. Colleges have relied on tuition for a growing share of their revenue over the past decade, the report found. In 2018, however, net tuition revenue didn’t rise, suggesting that colleges’ reliance on this funding source may be leveling. The flattening of tuition revenue suggests public colleges and universities are responding to market pressure on price growth, the SHEEO report notes. Still, “heavy reliance on tuition revenue has become the new norm for how state higher education system are funded,” SHEEO President Robert Anderson said in a news release. Some state budgets are proposing tuition freezes or limits on increases in exchange for more access to public funds.
JPMorgan Chase announced Monday that it is giving $350 million over five years to community colleges and career training programs. Eyes are on community colleges to provide the training panacea for the current skills gap as well as affordable ways for people to refresh or add to their skill sets throughout their lives. But the institutions charged with providing these solutions are largely underfunded, according to a recent policy paper from The Aspen Institute’s Economic Strategy Group. Its authors recommend a performance-based federal funding program that they say could add 3.6 million 18-to 24-year-olds with college degrees and upskill another 28 million workers by 2030. The cost is steep, however: $22 billion per year. Still, the researchers say that’s what’s needed to close the per-student funding gap between community colleges ($11,400) and public four-year institutions ($14,900).
Among the most popular ideas that Democratic presidential candidates campaign for is a tuition-free higher education. In a new Atlantic Argument, writer Adam Harris explains that while this is an intriguing idea, it is also a vague and sweeping one, and voters want policy specifics. “The nuts and bolts of education proposals in the 2020 election,” Harris says, “are critical to understanding whether or not, six years from now, the student-debt bubble reaches $2.5 trillion, or even $3 trillion.”
States have collectively scaled back their annual higher education funding by $9 billion over the last 10 years, when adjusted for inflation, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities reports. State appropriations per full-time student have fallen from an inflation-adjusted $8,489 in 2007 to $7,642 in 2017, according to the State Higher Education Executive Officers Association. That has pushed up the portion of university budgets that come from students to $6,572 from $4,817 over the same 10 years. Ten years ago, students and their families paid for about a third of university operating costs…now they pay for nearly half.
The 50 states appropriated a total of $91.5 billion to support their public universities and financial aid programs in Fiscal Year 2018-19. That’s a 3.7% increase over 2017-18 and an 18.2% increase over Fiscal Year 2013-14, according to Grapevine, the annual report of state higher education spending…This year’s increase continues a five-year trend of annual increases and is more than twice as large as last year’s uptick of 1.6%. While in general, the figures come as good news, reflecting the continuing recovery of state revenues, they mask considerable variation in support for higher education across the states. For example: The five largest year-over-year increases were in: Colorado (12%), Utah (8.6%), Hawaii (8.5%), Washington (6.8%) and California (6.6%). Five states decreased their appropriation from 2017-18 levels: South Carolina (-3.7%), Kentucky (-2.4%), Minnesota (-1.4%), Ohio (-.1%) and Alaska (-.1%).
Americans in a new poll of education priorities say they have a couple of top assignments for the new Congress — slash student debt and boost funding for public schools. The majority of Americans — both Republicans and Democrats — said “finding ways to lessen student debt” and “increasing spending on K-12 public education” were “extremely important” goals for the Congress…Respondents were given a list of six education policy areas and asked which they believe are “extremely important” for Congress to tackle. Seventy-nine percent picked cutting student debt, making it first on the list. Seventy-six percent selected public education funding, putting it second.
Analysis: How Bloomberg’s $1.8 billion gift to Johns Hopkins will elevate the national conversation about helping first-generation students complete their college degrees
What Bloomberg did is just one sliver of a barely noticed breakthrough playing out around boosting the college success rates for first-generation students. For decades nothing much worked to boost the college success rates for low-income and minority students. Although their rate of entering college rose impressively over the past decade, their actual degree-earning rates have been little better than flat. Instead of walking away with degrees, they walk away with disappointment, debt, or both. But that grim story appears to be changing, Richard Whitmire, author of The B.A. Breakthrough: How ending diploma disparities can change the face of America, outlines three factors driving this breakthrough: 1) The top charter school networks serving low-income students, which always promised parents they would find a way to ensure their children would earn college degrees, have carved out pathways to actually make that happen, 2) Colleges and universities have redoubled efforts to both admit more first-generation students and make sure they succeed, 3) Smart college advising aimed at first-generation students has always been sparse, which means many promising students end up at universities where they are unlikely to earn degrees. But that’s changing fast, thanks to an explosive growth in foundation-sponsored college advising programs.