Leonard C. Burrello
Executive Director
The Center for Appreciative

Organizing in Education
If you’ve been keeping an eye on the decreases in funding for public education at the university and K-12 levels, then you will likely find these data helpful in analyzing the funding trends and their implications for career opportunities and the ever-worsening issue of income inequality.

Decreasing Government Support for Higher Education

The precipitous fall in public funding of higher education was detailed recently in a New York Times article by David Leonhardt (2017), who suggests that “[t]he country’s most powerful engine of upward mobility is under assault.” In fact, he sees this assault on colleges to really be an assault on the American dream itself, as more and more state institutions recruit out-of-state students who pay a higher tuition than their in-state peers so that the universities can meet budget deficits. The consequence is that universities reject economically diverse students who might have less money and lower grades but the same academic potential as their wealthier counterparts. Cutting funding thus means limiting opportunities for economically depressed students to earn a degree and to move into the middle class (Leonhardt 2017).

Leonhardt uses the increasingly infrequent issuance of Pell grants to make his point; of all the public colleges measured in the 2017 College Access Index, the average percentage of last year’s freshmen who received Pell grants dropped from 24.3% between 2011-12 to 21.8%. At the University of California’s San Diego campus, the percentage of freshmen students receiving Pell grants dropped from 46% to 26% in five years. Private universities, meanwhile, continue to consistently supply 16% of their freshmen with Pell grants from year to year. Only a few outlying states are still increasing their funding of higher education instead of decreasing it, and as of May 2017, Alaska, Wyoming, and Wisconsin are some of those outliers (Leonhardt 2017).

Another is North Dakota. John Hageman with The Bismarck Tribune reports that the state raised its funds for higher education by a dramatic 38% from 2011-2015.  This translates to a boost from $657.8 million to $910.6 million. The state funding then dropped, however, from 2015-2017 to $837.8 million (Hageman 2017).

Decreasing Government Support for K-12

Likewise, state funding for K-12 has also suffered in a similar pattern over the last ten years. Michael Leachman and Chris Mai’s (2014) report for the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities found that “[a]t least 35 states [were] providing less funding per student for the 2013-14 school year than they did before the recession. Fourteen of these states [had] cut funding per student by more than 10%.” And while some states, like New Mexico, had increased their funding, the amount was too small to offset previous years’ cuts (Leachman and Mai 2014). 

Some Conclusions for Reflection

Leonhardt’s (2017) conclusion is that “the declines in state funding are stunning. It’s as if our society were deliberately trying to restrict opportunities and worsen income inequality.” In other words, the nation is curtailing its commitment of resources to college education at the same time that the call for education is ringing louder than ever. Gaps between college graduates and non-college graduates in the areas of unemployment, wealth, and health are all glaringly clear, and the world as a whole is suffering for it (Leonhardt 2017).

The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities concurs, arguing that the decline in state investments in education is uniquely startling “[a]t a time when the nation is trying to produce workers with the skills to master new technologies and adapt to the complexities of a global economy” (Leachman and Mai 2014).

​And finally, to make matters worse, all of this is occurring in the midst of a national conversation on student loan repayments and as President Trump’s 2018 budget proposes further cuts to economically diverse students’ education from K-20.