The State Role in College Costs

As part of his effort to try and improve education financing, President Obama has proposed distributing more federal money to colleges that keep tuition down. Now he’s attempting to address the other part of this equation: state funding. It’s not going to be easy to persuade states to be more generous, however.

On Monday at the National Governors Association Meeting the president explained to the nation’s governors that he wanted state universities to start operating differently. As Obama put it:

Over two-thirds of students attend public colleges and universities where, traditionally, tuition has been affordable because of state investments. And that’s something that every state takes pride in. That’s the crown jewel, in fact, of our economic system — is, by far, we’ve got the best network of colleges, universities and community colleges in the world.

But more than 40 states have cut funding for higher education over the past year. And this is just the peak of what has been a long-term trend in reduced state support for higher education. And state budget cuts have been among the largest factor in tuition hikes at public colleges over the past decade.

Declining state support for higher education is probably the major driver in college tuition increases.

It remains for Obama to try and figure out a way to incentivize America’s governors to invest more state money in higher education.

Tuition hikes are not just driven by taxpayer revolts, like in California. In many states the government is constitutionally required to pay for things like state employee pensions. When the economy sours, the states naturally look to costs wherever they can.

State colleges don’t suffer because governors don’t care about them; they suffer because in many cases governors are legally required to make other things a priority.

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Daniel Luzer

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