According to a new study by Demos, the major cause of the rise in college tuition costs is not, as is often believed, administrative bloat or construction binges, but the decline in state funding for higher education.
In the past, state funding for education often rose and fell along with the economy: since higher education funding is viewed as “discretionary” spending, it is often a target for cuts when states are forced to close recessionary holes in their budgets. However, in the past decade, state funding for higher education has diverged from that trend. Six years after the great recession, state higher education funding per student remains 27 percent below its pre-recession level. Unfortunately, declining state support for higher education means that many students today have no choice but to take on significant debt to finance their educations, the negative effects of which are increasingly evident in young people’s lives.
The fact is, public higher education in the United States no longer exists. Because more than half of core educational expenses at “public” 4-year universities are now funded through tuition, a private source of revenue, they have effectively become subsidized private institutions.
The other interesting piece of information in the Demos study is the enormous increase in part-time faculty. As Figure 2 shows, the number of employees per thousand students changed little between 1991 and 2011. But the composition of universities’ staff has changed dramatically. At both types of institutions, the relative number of full-time faculty has remained approximately constant and the number of executives and administrators has actually slightly decreased relative to the size of the student body. However, both types of institutions are employing substantially more part-time faculty (as well as professional staff—admissions and human resources staff, IT workers, athletic staff, and health workers). At the same time, the relative number of non-professional staff—workers providing clerical, technical, skilled craft, or maintenance services—shrank dramatically.