Public education is not so public anymore, says GAO

Government report finds tuition surpasses state funding for the first time

Tuition now contributes more to the revenue of public colleges and universities than direct financial support from the states, according to a new report from the Government Accountability Office (GAO).

The report was commissioned by the outgoing chair of the Senate's education committee, Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), and tracked funding and tuition for public higher education from 2003 to 2012.

Overall, the GAO found that tuition made up 25% of public higher education revenue in 2012, surpassing public funding for the first time. State funding totaled only 23% in 2012.

Related: Federal government should compel states to increase funding, say public education leaders

The percent of revenue coming from public funding has fallen precipitously since 2003, when it stood at 32%, the report notes. However, the decline in funding is even more severe when rising enrollment levels are taken into account. On a per-student basis, the GAO says median state funding decreased 24% from 2003 to 2012.

A long-term trend

According to the Delta Cost Project, the funding decline in recent years is part of a much larger trend. In the 1970s, around 75% of public higher education revenue came from state governments. That organization says some public four-year colleges saw tuition revenue surpass state support as early as 2008.

The findings are only the latest of many highlighting how public support for higher education has eroded. For example, a separate study from the New York Federal Reserve found that declining state budgets were a large contributor to rising tuition at public colleges.

Melissa Emrey-Arras, a leader of the GAO study, concludes "the bottom line is that college has become less affordable for students and their families." She points out that "it’s not just a perception thing. There really is truth to that in terms of the numbers that we’ve seen.”

Rising costs for students

Specifically, the GAO says average net tuition at public colleges and universities (the true cost of attendance after subtracting financial aid) rose by 19% in the period it examined. Furthermore, nearly every year, tuition increases outpaced inflation (Wexler, USA Today College, 1/2; Kingkade, Huffington Post, 1/4).

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