Students Bear the Burden of State Higher Ed Cuts

As states cut funding for higher education students are hit three times: higher tuition, lower financial aid and less bang for their buck.

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Over the past year, state funding for higher education has declined by nearly 8%. In real terms, that amounts to $6 billion less being funneled into the nation’s public colleges and universities at a time when the demand for the degrees they provide is at an all-time high.

According to the annual Grapevine report from the Center for the Study of Education Policy at Illinois State University, 41 states reduced funding as a result of the slow economic recovery and the end of federal stimulus funds. Of those, 29 states allocated less money in the 2011-12 school year than they did in the pre-recession 2006-07 school year. And further, 14 states reduced funds by more than 10%. In the most extreme case, New Hampshire reduced public funding for its colleges and universities by 41%; at the other end of the spectrum, North Carolina decreased funding by only 1%, and nine states managed to increase total state spending for higher ed.

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As state money declines, universities are left with no choice but to put more of the financial burden on students — the same students who are already taking on more debt than ever recorded. “There’s an awful lot of substitution of student money for state money,” said Dennis Jones, president of the National Center for Higher Education Management Systems. “The first reaction is always to increase tuition.” At the same time, also as a result of the cuts, schools are curtailing need-based financial aid programs. “Students are being hit with a double whammy — higher cost and less help,” Jones added.

But not only are students footing more of the bill, they are getting less bang for their buck. In order to compensate for the lack of funds, universities have made a host of significant changes — and almost none of them are good for students.

To start, universities have been forced to scale back the number of enrollment slots they can offer in the first place and recruit more out-of-state (and thus higher-tuition paying) students to up their bottom lines. Here’s one way this scenario could play out: Since elite schools are the ones that most effectively recruit out-of-state students, we’ll start with Student A, a California resident, who is qualified to attend the University of California, Berkeley, but is shut out because out-of-state students have snapped up a larger portion of the enrollment slots than in years past. So, instead of Berkeley, Student A enrolls in a more mid-level state school, like UC Davis. As a result, Student B, who in the past would have been a shoo-in at Davis, is denied admission, and instead opts to attend a community college. Consequently, Student C, whose only option is community college, is shut out of higher education altogether.

Those students who are lucky enough to get in often have a hard time finding space in the classes they need as universities slash classes and programs. “We’re seeing dramatic cases of students being enrolled in schools and then finding they can’t get into the courses they need to graduate,” said Paul Lingenfelter, president of the State Higher Education Executive Officers Association, the group that works with Grapevine to issue the report. “If you can’t provide seats in the classroom because you don’t have the money to hire faculty, that’s a denial of access for students.”

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If they’re lucky enough to get into the classes they want, students are more likely to be taught by adjunct faculty instead of full-time professors. The potential negative for students in this scenario is that adjunct faculty, who may be good teachers, don’t shoulder the responsibility of advising and mentoring students. “It’s not unusual for adjuncts to come in, teach a class and be gone,” Jones said. “In California they call them freeway fliers because they may teach at several schools in order to make a living themselves.” According to Jones, the students most likely to have adjunct faculty are freshmen, meaning many students begin their college careers without seeing faculty who are permanent fixtures at the university.

Of course, there are other ways to compensate for a lack of funds that don’t have a direct negative impact on students — including consolidating campuses, cutting programs with low-enrollment, scaling back administrative costs, being more energy efficient, etc. — but four years into the recession, most of the easy cuts have already been made, leaving raising tuition as the last option standing. But that’s not to say it’s a good option. “You have to worry most about the students who aren’t there that should be,” Lingenfelter said. “It’s very clear as cost has risen and aid has been stretched, that there are so many students who should be in higher education today that are not because they can’t afford to be.”

Kayla Webley is a Staff Writer at TIME. Find her on Twitter at @kaylawebley, on Facebook or on Google+. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.