When Laying Blame for Rising College Costs, Don’t Forget About Enrollment

In recent months, higher-education news coverage across the country has focused on the increased share of public-college costs being shifted from state governments to students.

The prevailing story line goes like this: States have “disinvested” in higher education during the past quarter-century, “cutting” money for public colleges and forcing institutions to raise tuition to cover the loss of tax dollars. As a result, many of the stories proclaim, students are neck-deep, or worse, in student-loan debt, which is hampering the economy and perhaps even forcing them to borrow more money for other purchases.

The first part of this narrative isn’t untrue, according to the figures reported annually by the State Higher Education Executive Officers. But it tells only part of the story. (The second part of that narrative is, at the moment, unclear, according to a pair of reports covered by one of my colleagues here.)

What is true is that net tuition (the amount students pay minus discounts and financial aid) is now nearly half of the total educational revenue per full-time-equivalent enrollment at state institutions. It’s that last caveat that most media coverage has failed to elaborate on.

Full-time-equivalent enrollment at public colleges increased by 55 percent from 1988 to 2013, which means there are some four million more students at those colleges now than there were 25 years ago. During the same period, total state educational appropriations, adjusted for inflation, have actually increased nearly 11 percent, compared with a 217-percent increase in total net tuition nationwide.

While there have been cuts in appropriations in recent years, it’s more accurate to say that over time states have failed to keep up with enrollment increases. By my calculations, states would have had to spend a total of nearly $28-billion more in 2013 to make up for the deficit caused by more students’ attending college. That amount is equal to the total higher-education spending of the five largest states in 2013—about 39 percent of the total that all states spent on higher education.

Another point that has generally escaped news coverage (including mine, to be fair) is that tuition has actually risen by a larger dollar amount per student than state dollars have been cut. Adjusted for inflation, state educational appropriations per full-time-equivalent enrollment fell $2,474 from 1988 to 2013. Tuition per student increased $2,790 over the same period.

So while some blame states for starving public higher education with cuts, it might be that they just couldn’t keep up with all the mouths at the table.

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