State universities’ funding woes will only become more difficult

Many public university systems’ flagship campuses, faced with state funding cuts, are hiking tuition, increasing the numbers of higher-paying nonresident students, ramping up fundraising — and confronting the very notion of what it means to be a public institution.

But as states have dealt with falling tax revenues and competing needs, higher education has become a tempting target for budget cuts, said Julie Bell, education program director for the National Conference of State Legislatures. The trend is “serious, and it’s long term,” she said.

The Scripps Howard Foundation wire collected data about one public university in each state. Most flagship universities received from 20 to 40 percent of their funding from their respective states, but the range of support was broad.

State support for higher education had been eroding before the recession struck in 2008. States collectively spent $90 billion on public universities in fiscal 2009, covering about 30 percent of their revenue — down from 50 percent two decades ago, Bloomberg News reported, citing a report from Moody’s Investors Service.

The University of Colorado at Boulder averaged only 6.9 percent, lowest in the nation.“We have become used to this low state aid,” said Philip DiStefano, chancellor of CU, which previously got 10 percent of its budget from the state in the 1990s. “And it has forced us to be entrepreneurial to make sure that we provide a quality education.”

CU still offers quality accredited programs, although accreditation teams and other visitors have said some campus buildings need improvement. To deal with its reduced budget, CU also is considering raising its resident tuition, DiStefano said.

Michael Tanner, vice president of the Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities, said some public schools — trying “to get along with less tax revenue” — are becoming more tuition-driven, resembling private institutions. Very few state universities can continue to provide easy public access.”

Given uncertain state support, some flagships are considering seeking greater independence from state regulations. Other flagship institutions are looking for new revenue sources.

How a flagship university fares may or may not differ from its sister campuses’ experiences, said M. Peter McPherson, president of the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities. Funds can be distributed evenly among a state’s public universities or focused more heavily on certain ones.

Formulas “are state-specific and institution-specific,” said McPherson, former president of Michigan State University. “It varies tremendously.” He predicted public universities’ funding situation would worsen in 2012.

Mary Barczak writes about education and politics for the  Scripps Howard News Service.

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