State Spending on Higher Education Hasn't Always Been So Volatile, Study Finds

April 15, 2009

Higher-education leaders often complain about the boom-and-bust cycle of state appropriations: Lawmakers slash the budget for public colleges and try to make up for the deep cuts with extravagant increases when the economy recovers.

But a new study, being presented today at the American Educational Research Association’s annual conference in San Diego, has found that the seeming roller coaster of higher-education appropriations is relatively new.

“The level of volatility in state budgeting has increased over time — ranging from a very stable and predictable relationship in the 1950s and 1960s to an extremely volatile relationship in the 1990s,” write the researchers, William R. Doyle, an assistant professor of higher education at Vanderbilt University, and Jennifer A. Delaney, an assistant professor of educational leadership and policy analysis at the University of Wisconsin at Madison.

Using data from the U.S. Census and the Grapevine Project at Illinois State University, the authors found that beginning in the 1960s, state dollars for higher education grew, or decreased, proportionally with other state spending. That pattern shifted in the 1970s, the study reports, as lawmakers gave more money to higher education “even as other expenditures were being cut.”

By the 1990s, however, “higher education was unlikely to receive increases in state spending until year-to-year changes in spending for all other budget categories were rather large.” —Eric Kelderman