Without federal relief, continuing disinvestment in public colleges will substantially limit students’ educational opportunities (opinion)

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Since the early 1980s, when public higher education funding was at a high point, the nation has experienced five economic recessions. The result has been a recurring pattern of state disinvestment in public colleges and universities that has resulted in many long-term consequences.

According to a report from Postsecondary Education Opportunity and the Pell Institute for the Study of Opportunity in Higher Education, the defunding of public higher education has been underway since 1979, when state investment effort peaked at $10.39 per $1,000 of average state personal income levels. Measured this way, in 2019 state investment effort has declined to $5.44 per $1,000 of state personal income or by 52.4 percent for public higher education. Currently, public higher education is experiencing one of its lowest funding levels in state investment effort since 1965. This has resulted in a recurring pattern of student tuition and fee increases leading to unprecedented student loan indebtedness.

Such trends in state disinvestment have resulted in the creation of many state and federal policies aimed at addressing growing concerns about college costs by middle-class voters. These policy developments include the creation of over a dozen substantial state merit-based scholarship programs and a massive expansion of federal tax credits like the American Opportunity Tax Credit, which accounts for approximately $20 billion in federal expenditures. Most recently, recurring state disinvestment and resulting years of student tuition growth have led to a national dialogue known as the “free college” movement, which has been embraced by President-elect Joe Biden.

Now that the election is over, the U.S. Congress must turn its attention to the fact that our states are overwhelmed with fiscal challenges caused by a global pandemic and a new economic recession. Nationwide, most public colleges and universities are bracing for another series of state budget reductions. That is why Congress must act swiftly to stabilize state educational budgets in order to protect students and families as it has successfully done in the past.

During the last economic recession, federal relief in 2009, 2010 and 2011 provided much-needed resources to public colleges and universities through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act and protected tens of thousands of faculty and staff positions while holding student tuition and fee increases to a minimum. This essential investment saved or created millions of jobs for faculty members, staff members, health-care professionals and construction workers, among many others. More recently, the federal government worked quickly this past spring to provide initial relief through the CARES Act for students and higher education institutions.

But more assistance is needed now. Our nation’s governors are pleading for federal support to respond to skyrocketing unemployment claims, declining tax revenues and ballooning public health expenditures. Together, those issues may lead to subsequent budget reductions that will substantially limit public colleges and universities from providing more accessible and affordable educational opportunities for students throughout their states and America.

I urge our nation’s lawmakers and leaders to put aside partisan issues and build an alliance to provide much-needed assistance as our nation’s state governments, community colleges and four-year universities navigate the greatest health and economic crisis in our lifetime. Only with such timely assistance will our public colleges and universities be able to fulfill their vital education, research and community service missions for the benefit of all students and the nation.



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