The decline in funding for state universities is going to be a huge problem, according to a new report by the National Science Board.

As an Associated Press piece in the Washington Post explains:

State support for public research universities fell 20 percent between 2002 and 2010, after accounting for inflation and increased enrollment of about 320,000 students nationally, according to the report published Tuesday by the National Science Board. The organization provides independent advice to the federal government and oversees the National Science Foundation.

This, of course, is well known. The problem, however, is this:

While public research universities still managed to increase instructional spending 10 percent between 1999 and 2009, to about $10,000 per student, private universities increased such spending 25 percent over the that period, and now spend more than twice as much per student on teaching as their public counterparts.

The amount spent per student isn’t actually a direct measure of college quality, of course, but public universities spending less and less while privates spend more and more doesn’t bode well for the future of public education. According to the article it, “rais[es] the specter of a two-tier system in which most of the very best faculty migrate to private institutions and work with a comparatively small number of students.”

If this trend continues public universities will have to make some tough decisions. If they can’t get enough money from the state to continue operating effectively, they may essentially privatize themselves; charge students higher tuition in order to obtain autonomy.

That will allow the state universities to survive, but it won’t be very good for the public. A former president of Texas A&M pointed out that public research institutions help nurture discoveries in technology and medicine and also help facilitate entire local and regional economies.

Private colleges do this too, but they do it on a much smaller scale. University privatization is not just bad for undergraduate students, who have to pay more for their own education; it could also be very bad for research and economics. Private universities have very different bottom lines and simply can’t sustain projects of the same scale and depth of major state colleges.

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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