Many US public colleges’ spending per student ‘down pre-pandemic’

Data from WSJ/THE US College Rankings paint worrying picture for sector facing further financial woes

October 7, 2020
Patch of parched earth

View the full results of the Wall Street Journal/Times Higher Education College Rankings 2021

The amount of money being spent per student by public higher education institutions was already falling in several US states before the coronavirus pandemic hit the country, data gathered for the latest college rankings reveal.

In some states with a large number of public universities, such as New York, Pennsylvania and California, the fall amounted to several hundred dollars less in spending per student for teaching and student services.

The drops in funding may have led to some institutions losing ground in the 2021 Wall Street Journal/Times Higher Education US College Rankings, with finance per student making up 11 per cent of total scores. For instance, in New York state, public universities dropped an average of 7.4 points on the metric.

Private universities and colleges fared better on funding when the 2021 ranking data are compared with the year before: 18 out of the 24 states with more than 10 private institutions saw an increase in average funding per student on such campuses.

States with largest falls in per capita funding for public institutions, 2020 to 2021

States with largest falls in per capita funding  for public institutions, 2020 to 2021

Although the figures, gathered for the rankings from the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS), reflect university and college finances about 18 months before the onset of the pandemic, they suggest the public system was already struggling with funding following years of state cutbacks.

Steve Gavazzi, professor of human development and family science at the Ohio State University, said coupling this financial picture “with what we know about the pandemic’s economic toll on universities” meant there was a “recipe for disaster” in US public higher education.

“Institutions of higher learning that might have gotten by on a few lean years now may be forced into much more extreme situations, including closing their doors,” he said.

Sophia Laderman, senior policy analyst at the State Higher Education Executive Officers Association, said funding in public institutions may have been falling in some areas before the pandemic because higher education had “become less of a budget priority” for some state governments since the 2008 financial crash.

But the worry was that the pandemic would now bring “serious budget cuts across the states in the next few years” that would cause further problems for public institutions, particularly those that traditionally served more disadvantaged communities.

“Several states have already announced budget cuts, and this will negatively impact institutional budgets, particularly for public regional and community colleges that are more reliant on state funding,” she said.

Ms Laderman added that the traditional compensation in a recession of institutions increasing their income through greater enrolment may not necessarily come to pass.

“This year, there are noteworthy drops in the number of students attending some sectors, particularly at two-year institutions. Institutions with both reduced tuition revenues and reduced state funding face a very tough situation.”

According to Professor Gavazzi, increasing support among the public for the funding of higher education through tax revenue could be key to institutions’ survival.

However, recent American Population Panel research he had been involved with showed significant ambivalence over higher education’s role in tackling issues such as Covid-19 and racism, which suggested “public universities ought to be doing a better job of telling their story in ways that could positively impact public sentiment”.


Print headline: Even before the pandemic, spending per student had fallen at many US public colleges

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