Higher Education & Lower Public Investments

higher educationWhen education and training beyond high school is needed to qualify for most jobs in our economy, it’s upsetting to see public support for higher education on the decline. Nationally, the State Higher Education Executive Officers Association (SHEEO) finds since 1992, appropriations per student has dropped by about 8 percent, after adjusting for inflation. In 2017, for the first time ever, more than half of the states received more from tuition payments than from state appropriations.

Unfortunately, this is an old hat for Colorado. As we point out in our Guide to Economic Mobility, the share of costs at Colorado’s public colleges and universities paid by students and families has doubled since 2000.

One way students and families cover college costs today is by taking on debt. The Colorado Department of Higher Education finds students graduating from Colorado’s public colleges in 2016-2017 had an average loan debt of $26,259 for bachelor’s degree recipients and $13,212 for associate degree recipients. Total student loan debt held by Coloradans is up almost sixfold since 1999.

Related: For-Profit College Students: Low Completion, High Student Debt

The drop in public support is particularly disconcerting as the demographic makeup of Colorado continues to change. Racial and ethnic minorities are projected to constitute 6 out of 10 new entrants to the workforce and nearly 50 percent of all Colorado workers by 2050. Plus, our recent analysis shows getting into the middle class generally requires at least one wage earner in the family with a bachelor’s degree or higher.

“The reliance on tuition dollars most adversely impacts our historically underserved population,” says Robert E. Anderson, president of SHEEO. “To develop the talent needed to meet workforce demands and grow their economies, states must find a way to balance the scale so that their higher education systems are not disproportionately dependent on the hardworking American people and families who can least afford it.”

An Atlantic article published earlier this year draws a connection between the decreased public investments in higher education and the projected increased enrollment of minority students. Regardless of whether the relationship is simply correlated, the reality is more students of color, many from low-income families, will be attending school at a time when total costs are higher than they have been in the past two decades.

Related: Early Childhood & Postsecondary Education Advance Economic Mobility

Given the imminent shifts in Colorado’s workforce, we need to ensure more students from traditionally underserved communities have access to an affordable education, so they can advance and prosper in our changing economy.