Just about every investment priority of state governments took a hit at the beginning of the last decade thanks to the Great Recession, which drained revenues while placing stress on safety-net programs. In much of the country, this problem was exacerbated by the wave of conservative Republican political victories in 2010 (repeated to a lesser extent in 2014), which brought to power governors and legislators who thought it was a good idea to cut taxes and really cut spending in bad times.
As the largest single spending category for state governments (Medicaid is larger, but the federal government supplies a majority of the money), public education took a particularly large blow from this double whammy of reduced revenues and tax-cut-driven spending cuts. Within the education category, higher education was particularly targeted for cuts, mostly for the simple reason that public colleges and university had the alternative revenue source of raising tuition charges.
Well, the Great Recession is long over, but Republicans still have a grip on a sizable majority of state governments. And as the teacher protests and strikes sweeping across the heartland this year have illustrated, in many states education spending has not recovered from its prerecession levels.
As Ron Brownstein observes, in higher education, the balance between state government revenues and tuition charges that tilted so far in the latter direction has not been regained, either:
The latest annual survey of state spending by the State Higher Education Executive Officers found that, since 1992, spending per student — measured in inflation-adjusted dollars — has declined at public colleges and universities by about 8 percent (even after a recovery in spending after states’ low point in 2012). In turn, per-student tuition revenue has increased by 96 percent.
The result has been an enormous shift in cost from the public collectively to parents and students individually. In 1992, tuition accounted for slightly less than three-tenths of the total educational revenue for public colleges and universities. But by 2017, tuition supplied nearly half of the total revenue. In 28 states last year, tuition provided more revenue than public appropriations, SHEEO found. That was the first time a majority of states funded post-secondary education mostly through tuition.
A few “blue” states — notably California, Illinois, and New York — have bucked these trends. But the “red state” trajectory of higher-education investments is horrendous:
[S]ince the recession in 2008, per-student appropriations for public higher education have declined by around one-sixth in Texas, Georgia, and North Carolina; by over one-fifth in Florida and Mississippi; by over one-fourth in South Carolina; by about one-third in Nevada and Alabama; and by over two-fifths in Arizona and Louisiana.
Unsurprisingly, the resulting cost shift to students and parents has had a lot to do with the emergence of a national student-loan debt crisis. But as Brownstein points out, a better economy isn’t necessarily easing the problem, in part because of another trend: the growing diversity of the population accessing public-higher-education services:
As recently as 2000, white kids comprised over three-fifths of all K-12 public-school students in the United States. But the National Center for Educational Statistics calculates that kids of color became the majority for the first time in 2014, and it projects their share will reach 55 percent within a decade. By June 2025, kids of color will, for the first time, comprise the majority of high-school graduates, the center recently projected. And soon after 2030, minorities — who represented just 30 percent of post-secondary students as recently as 2000 and constitute almost 40 percent now — are expected to become the majority on college campuses, too.
That could represent an even bigger political problem, particularly in places where the politicians making decisions on public-higher-education expenditures are representing largely older and whiter constituencies. In the Deep South, of course, you already have a disconnect between large minority populations and a Republican ruling class that is entirely independent politically from those populations — in a culture where racial conflict is always an inch below the surface.
It’s a complicated picture, to be sure. In those same southern jurisdictions where public support for public education has been declining, and where the demographic split between Republican pols and the student population is growing, there is a tradition of intense pride in flagship universities that goes far beyond alumni. I was reminded of these conflicted sentiments when attending last year’s College Football National Championship in Atlanta. Before the playing of the national anthem, Donald Trump strode across the field, and in the University of Alabama section in which I was seated (the only place I could get tickets), the mostly white fans clapped and cheered lustily. But they (and the rest of the 77,430 fans in attendance) really went wild cheering for the mostly African-American players in the game.
It could be that in some conservative parts of the country, peripheral things like athletics may represent the most important personal link between the political base of state government and public higher education. And that’s a link as fragile as a football coach’s contract.