State support to US higher education up 27 per cent in five years

Enrolment declines also shrink, but inflation and historical patterns cited as reasons for sector to expect danger may be lurking

February 2, 2023
Source: iStock

State support for higher education rose nearly 7 per cent across the US in the past year, part of a decade-long revival bolstered in recent years by Covid-related federal infusions.

The increase for the current fiscal year is part of a 27 per cent increase over the past five years, according to the latest annual figures compiled by the State Higher Education Executive Officers Association and the Centre for the Study of Education Policy at Illinois State University.

“Things are looking better than they have for a decade,” said Sophia Laderman, associate vice-president at Sheeo, which represents the chief executives of statewide post-secondary governing boards.

Yet the more underlying condition of state support – traditionally the leading governmental contributor to higher education in the US – was significantly less clear, Dr Laderman acknowledged, as the Covid-related federal funding infusions into the states that drove the spending boom are now beginning to run dry.

And while the pandemic-related federal aid brought average state spending on higher education in the US almost back up to levels of 2008, just before the Great Recession, rising inflation may be wiping out much of the bigger gains over the last two years, Dr Laderman said.

Tuition fees covered 42 per cent of overall revenues at US public institutions in 2021, according to Sheeo’s latest calculations of that statistic, down from 47 per cent in 2016 but up from 21 per cent in 1980.

US higher education got a second set of good-but-tempered news from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, which issued its final count of student enrolment for the autumn 2022 semester, showing that overall campus populations declined nationwide by only 0.6 per cent.

The Clearinghouse is part of a non-profit organisation that collects and analyses data on behalf of US colleges and universities, and it hailed the figure – an update from its earlier estimate of a 1.1 per cent loss for autumn 2022 – as a rebound from previous enrolment drops totalling about 7 per cent during the period of the pandemic.

An especially positive sign in the new data, said Doug Shapiro, the research centre’s executive director, was a rise of more than 4 per cent in overall freshman enrolment this past autumn.

Top Biden administration officials joined the celebratory mood, staging a White House event with First Lady Jill Biden and education secretary Miguel Cardona where they said they have now counted more than 18 million students who received direct aid under a section of federal Covid relief that routed about $20 billion (£16 billion) directly to them.

The overwhelming majority of those beneficiaries were already receiving Pell Grants, the main federal subsidy for low-income students, Dr Cardona said. “So we know these students were in need,” he said.

Despite the positive talk on funding and enrolment, the moment appears dangerous for US higher education, said veteran university leader F. King Alexander. Dr Alexander said he recalled serving as president of Louisiana State University when the spending boost of the federal stimulus after the Great Recession was quickly followed by deep spending cuts, as states took advantage of the temporary federal subsidy to shrink their own support.

“The real test regarding state funding of public higher education is coming,” he said.

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Reader's comments (1)

This article and the biased sources on which it is based defy the reality across public universities in the US. why?