‘Crisis’ in higher ed isn’t really

Today we bring you Things Are Not As Bad As You’ve Heard, Higher Education Edition.

State funding for Georgia’s colleges and universities is down, by 28 percent per student between 2008 and 2013. Tuition and fees are up; they almost doubled during those same five years.

These facts, reported by a national association of state higher-ed officers, and trumpeted by election-year opponents of Gov. Nathan Deal, are not in dispute. Unfortunately, they aren’t in context, either. Consider:

  • Despite the decrease in state funding, Georgia still spends more taxpayer dollars per student — and per $1,000 of personal income — than 35 other states.
  • Despite the increase in tuition and fees, Georgia’s public colleges remain cheaper than the national average — about 10 percent less among four-year colleges, and nearly 20 percent less among all colleges.
  • Despite these significant financial changes, enrollment at our four-year colleges grew at a faster average annual clip (2.9 percent during those five years) than during the preceding four years (2.1 percent) when tuition increases were slower. Enrollment at all state colleges rose more than 14 percent even as tuition soared, the 17th-fastest increase nationally.
  • And despite all these things, the average Georgian with student loans has less debt than the average student borrower nationwide.

Even after the controversial (and bipartisan) changes made to the HOPE scholarship in 2011, reducing the value of the award, Georgia’s amount of state-funded tuition aid per student was the sixth-highest in the nation last year.

Simply put, there’s no real evidence of the kind of crisis we’re told exists.

That’s not to diminish the impact of higher tuition and fees, or to say things haven’t gotten harder for college students. Our public colleges may remain affordable relative to the rest of the country. Kiplinger magazine ranks four of ours among its 100 “best values”; only seven states have more schools on the list. But obviously, sharp price increases in a short time can be difficult to swallow.

At the same time, what was the alternative? There were two, really: deeper cuts to other public services, or higher taxes.

Would it really have been more fair to raise taxes on the majority of Georgians who don’t attend college, and never will, to avoid raising the price for those do?

The state does have an economic interest in seeing that more students graduate from college without overly burdening themselves with debt. The trick is balancing that interest against others.

Even after funding decreases and tuition increases, Georgia is less reliant on tuition to fund its public colleges than all but 12 states. That’s a pretty good sign we’re striking the right balance.

Now, with the recession over and with budgets and tuition hikes alike returning to more normal levels, the onus is on the colleges to ensure they’re being the best possible stewards of public and student dollars.

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