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Another Report Shows that a College Education is Slipping Away

Michael Lipsky

For most young Americans, obtaining a secure place in society depends upon going to college. Three out of every four college students depends upon public colleges and universities. Yet the dream of achieving a rung on the college-educated ladder is slipping away as states reduce their commitments to higher education.

This is the grim conclusion of this week’s report from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. Public higher education, except for military academies, is almost entirely provided by state governments, and state governments have been cutting back higher education support as the recession sapped their capacity to raise revenues. All but two states have cut their support to higher education since 2008, on average spending 28 percent less than they did before the recession.

Some states—notably California and Arizona—have increased tuition substantially to make up the difference. When states raise tuition they make college less affordable, requiring students to drop out for one or more semesters to earn enough money to return to school, or forcing them to work longer hours—with less attention for their studies--to make up the difference.

States have also dealt with the shortfall by cutting college and university budgets, resulting in larger class sizes, discouraged faculty, and fewer course offerings. When students can’t graduate from college because they can’t get into a required course to complete their major, something is very wrong with the system.

These conclusions echo the report from Demos last December, which traced a comparable twenty year decline in American underwriting of higher education.

At present and as usual, the eyes of the nation are focused on federal spending issues. Budget cuts required with the present Sequestration agreement include federal work study and the Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grant. Pell grants that provide financial aid to individual students in need—over nine million—are not affected by sequestration this year, but could be among the federal programs sacrificed in the impending budget talks.

But the real battle over whether a college education will be within reach of young Americans will be fought out not at the federal level, but in the states, which continue to struggle with recessionary revenues and multiple demands for scarce resources. Success in restoring the quality and affordability of higher public education in the states will require coalitions of enlightened political and business leaders, as well as educators, who recognize the leverage for states’ economic development of investing in higher education.