The blog of the Urban Institute
April 4, 2015

Declining state expenditures on public universities are in fact driving tuition increases

April 5, 2015

In his April 4, 2015 New York Times Sunday Review article, “The Real Reason College Tuition Costs So Much,” Paul Campos dismisses the role of state funding in explaining increases in tuition at public universities, criticizing an NPR quote in which I highlighted declining per student state appropriations.

But the facts are clear. After adjusting for inflation, state appropriations per student were 18 percent lower in 2013-14 than they were thirty years earlier, and 29 percent lower than their peak in 1988-89. Over the past decade, state funding per student declined by 14 percent.

In contrast, institutional expenditures per student rose by a total of 6 percent at public doctoral universities over this ten-year period, and by 3 percent at public master’s universities. Community colleges spend 7 percent less per student in inflation-adjusted dollars than they did a decade ago. So there has not been a rapid rise in spending on public college campuses that could be the primary driver of tuition increases.

It is not rising expenditures, but declining state revenues that account for most of the pressure on state institutions to raise tuition.

None of this is to say that colleges shouldn’t work to lower costs and raise efficiency or that state appropriation patterns are the only explanation for tuition increases. But denying the failure of state funding to keep up with enrollment increases will interfere with efforts to improve college access and affordability for all students.


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