In recent years, The United States has seen an increasingly noticeable lack of funding from states on higher education. As a new report from the Center on Budget and Policy Priority reveals, 47 states spent less money per student in the 2014-15 school year than they did in 2008. This lack of funding is due to an unfortunate series of cuts that came during the recession, when public colleges and universities were forced to lay off faculty, eliminate course offerings, and even close campuses because state governments couldn’t supply adequate funds. Another result of the cuts was a hike in tuition, with 2015 rates 29 percent higher than they were in 2007-08.

If the recession is over, why haven’t we returned to our pre-2008 figures? The simple answer is that raising tuition lessens institutions’ reliance on state funding. By charging students more, public colleges and universities don’t require the same amount of taxpayer dollars that they used to. The obvious problem, though, is that this practice negatively impacts students, cutting them off from services that used to exist and making college less affordable. These practices especially hurt the students who need higher education the most — those who come from low-income backgrounds.

In fact, new statistics show that 98 percent of the neediest students in community colleges have “unmet financial need,” meaning that they aren’t able to afford school even with family contributions and financial aid. With 36% of all postsecondary students enrolled in community colleges, this is cause for alarm.

When students can’t afford to attend college, most of them take out loans. In 2012, for instance, 79 percent of low-income bachelor’s degree graduates were in debt, compared to 55 percent who came from wealthy families. By the fourth quarter of 2014, American students had collected a total $1.16 trillion in student debt, surpassing totals for both car loans and credit card debt. Research also shows that tuition increases may be pushing students toward less selective institutions, thereby reducing future earnings, and could even deter low-income students from enrolling in college at all.

When discussing child poverty, education is commonly referred to as an individual’s “ticket out” or their opportunity to pursue a brighter future. While this statement is generally true, it unfortunately comes with an asterisk when it comes to public colleges and universities. When a lack of funding from states sends tuition sky-high, we condemn motivated and promising students to undersell themselves and enter the job market with less training than they need, or no training at all. If states were to re-up their funding efforts, and specifically target them towards accessibility and expansion, pressure would be taken off students, and we could see decreased reliance on loans, fewer dropouts, and economic development both for individuals and on a large scale.

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Want to learn more? First Focus is a bipartisan advocacy organization dedicated to making children and families the priority in federal policy and budget decisions. Read more about our work on education.

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