Poorest states make biggest cuts to higher ed, signal national trend

Less money means higher tuitions and fewer programs

Despite deep cuts since the recession, many of the country's poorest—and least educated—states are going further, cutting programs and faculty for communities most in need, Jon Marcus writes for the Hechinger Report.

Since the economic downturn in 2008, 48 states have cut funding for higher education a collective 23%, according to a report released by the nonpartisan Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. The trend is especially worrying considering that researchers at Georgetown University's Center on Education and the Workforce predict that 65% of new jobs will require a postsecondary-degree by 2025.

Even in states like Massachusetts—which is the most educated state, according to the Census Bureau—69% of employers said they are already having trouble finding qualified workers for in-demand jobs.

No end in sight

In poor and less educated states, the problem is acutely worse. In Mississippi, which has the country's lowest median income, only 33% of adults have a college degree—far behind the national average of 40%. In certain counties, the rate is a mere 8%.

Yet the state is in the process of trimming education budgets further. Delta State University (DSU) of Cleveland, Mississippi recently announced $1 million in cuts that will cut programs in journalism, foreign languages, theater arts, mass communications, rhetoric, technical writing, insurance and real estate.

Patricia Roberts, a journalism professor who is losing her job as the result of the cuts, says they make little sense. "Why would we cut education in a place like the Mississippi Delta?" she asks. As Marcus points out, Mississippi would have to quadruple its college graduates to equal the national average by 2025—something that seems nearly impossible without adequate funding.

The state's public institutions have asked for $155 million in additional funding next year, but with competing budget priorities and a new governor asking the state legislature for additional tax cuts, the request is likely to go unmet.

A national problem

Nationally, the outlook is not much better. According to the American Association of State Colleges and Universities, state governments are poised to further trim taxes and spending. That means average tuition is likely to continue rising as colleges seek to make up for shortfalls in funding. Since 2008, as cuts have mounted, average tuition at four-year public universities has risen 28%.

Moody's: Prepare for your net revenues to decline

Howard Segel, a professor of history at the University of Maine (a state which is also cutting higher-education funding this year) says Maine and Mississippi "are the vanguard of what will happen to public higher education in many of the other 48 states, or already is happening in some of them."

However, some administrators say the cuts are needed to protect in-demand programs. "We can’t be all things to all people," says Bill LaForge, DSU's president. "Students are voting with their feet, and students don’t want journalism," he says.

Susan Feiner, vice president of the faculty union at the University of Southern Maine, argues the problem with the cuts has less to do with individual programs and more with a crisis in higher education generally. "There’s not the debate about what college is for at Harvard. There’s a debate about what college is for at public universities that serve working-class students," she says. "What they’re going after is the schools that have traditionally served as the gateways for lower-class people into jobs with economic opportunity" (Marcus, Hechinger Report, 11/26).

More on higher education funding

What UC's funding battle means beyond California

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Five business model changes that helped colleges weather the recession

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