Eating Our Young: Financing Higher Education

It’s no secret that higher education is in big trouble. Today, the State Higher Education Executive Officers released its report tracing state financing of higher education. Not light reading, it’s one of many long, dreary line of indictments of what’s not happening underneath the state houses and capitol domes across the nation. Our inaction is awful. But only so if one cares about the future of the United States and opportunities for our grandchildren.

SHEEO’s report documents what happens when enrollments swell, tax revenues decline, and public apathy reigns. According to this report, college enrollment increased nationally by 12.5 percent, to 11.5 million students from 2007-2008 until last year. But state and local appropriations have decreased by $1.3-billion over the same period. The SHEEO report doesn’t mention that the surge in enrollment was experienced at community colleges at least in the early years of the Great Recession. It’s inevitable–short of a sea change of tsunami proportions–that in this environment tuition revenue per student would reach an all-time high last year.

Chicken Little may be right. When other nations are making dramatic improvements in postsecondary education, the cost of our self-inflicted wounds are escalating. The world economy demands a highly skilled workforce but we insist on digging ourselves an ever deeper hole every year. We now are below the average, ranking 16th among 23 OECD countries, in the percentage of citizens who have completed postsecondary education.

The press release accompanying today’s SHEEO report mildly proclaims that, “if the United States falls behind in either quality or the number of students who enroll and graduate, it will not be easy to catch up.” Is that “not easy” or should we say “impossible?” What do you think?

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