The burden of funding higher education is split about evenly between the federal government and states, according to a new study from the Pew Charitable Trust.
The recession has been a major driver of the shift for two reasons: more people went back to school to improve their career prospects, but at the same time, states cut spending on higher education to make up for budget deficits.
From 1987 to 2012, states provided about 65% more funding for higher education than the federal government on average. By 2013, the two had become much more equal contributors.
The problem with this situation is that the kind of money colleges receive from these different sources is not the same. Nearly all federal spending effectively bypasses the school, going to students in the form of financial aid programs or to specific research projects in the form of grants.
Instead, it is state and local sources that allow most of their funding to go toward general purpose appropriations.
But for several years, state aid has been unreliable. "State levels of funding fall with the economy, says Phil Oliff, a manager at Pew. "When revenue is down, states respond by cutting higher education funding."
Together, federal and state funding accounted for only 37% of total revenue at public colleges and universities in 2013.
Public higher education is not so public anymore, says GAO
According to the report, the total amount of revenue—as well as its composition—varies widely across states. Pew's data show Florida, Nevada, and New Jersey received the least total funding per full-time student in 2013, while Alaska, the District of Columbia, and Pennsylvania received the most (Wermund, eCampusNews/Houston Chronicle, 6/15; Richman, Baltimore Sun, 6/11; Pew Charitable Trusts, Federal and State Funding of Higher Education, 6/11).
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