Per-student state funding for public colleges is dropping. According to a report released today by the National Science Foundation:

While the value of overall state funding declined nationally, enrollment was growing consistently. As a result, state funding per enrolled student dropped in constant dollars by 20%, going from $10,195 per student in 2002 to $8,157 per student in 2010.

Preliminary data prepared by CSEP—available by state but not by university—suggest a continuing state funding decline. In particular, between 2009 and 2011, 35 of the 50 states reported reductions in state appropriations and other state support, ranging from less than 1% to more than 28%.

Not that funding was exactly lavish in 2002.

In fact, per student state support for public universities has been falling for more than 20 years. Before the Great Recession began in 2007, state support was, according to a paper published by the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities, “at the lowest level in 25 years.” And it’s been declining ever since.

In March, 2011 U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan said that “America once led the world in the number of college graduates it produces, and now we’ve fallen to ninth.” He followed up by explaining that “We need to educate our way to a better economy, and governors must help lead the way.”

People, education pundits in particular, have focused a great deal on the first part of that last sentence. It’s probably the second part that needs more attention. Where are the education governors? In the understandable absence of any big federal initiative to fix the education gap America has with many other developed countries, this has to be a state project.

It’s state support for public higher education that’s really good to matter for the future of the country’s development. So far we appear to be moving in the wrong direction.

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Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer