Where the Jobs Are, the Training May Not Be
As state funding has dwindled, public colleges have raised tuition and are now resorting to even more desperate measures — cutting training for jobs the economy needs most.
Technical, engineering and health care expertise are among the few skills in huge demand even in today’s lackluster job market. They are also, unfortunately, some of the most expensive subjects to teach. As a result, state colleges in Nebraska, Nevada, South Dakota, Colorado, Michigan, Florida and Texas have eliminated entire engineering and computer science departments.
At one community college in North Carolina — a state with a severe nursing shortage — nursing program applicants so outnumber available slots that there is a waiting list just to get on the waiting list.
This squeeze is one result of the states’ 25-year withdrawal from higher education. During and immediately after the last few recessions, states slashed financing for colleges. Then when the economy recovered, most states never fully restored the money that had been cut. The recent recession has amplified the problem.
“There has been a shift from the belief that we as a nation benefit from higher education, to a belief that it’s the people receiving the education who primarily benefit and so they should foot the bill,” said Ronald G. Ehrenberg, the director of the Cornell Higher Education Research Institute and a trustee of the State University of New York system.
Even large tuition increases have not fully offset state cuts, since many state legislatures cap how much colleges can charge for each course. So classes get bigger, tenured faculty members are replaced with adjuncts and technical courses are sacrificed.
State appropriations for colleges fell by 7.6 percent in 2011-12, the largest annual decline in at least five decades, according to a report from the Center for the Study of Education Policy at Illinois State University. In one extreme example, Arizona has slashed its college budget by 31 percent since the recession began in 2007.
It is this cumulative public divestment — and not extravagances like climbing walls or recreational centers advertised on a few elite campuses — that is primarily responsible for skyrocketing tuitions at state institutions, which enroll three out of every four college students.
Colleges have found ways to hold costs per student relatively steady. Since 1985, the average amount that public institutions spend on teaching each full-time student over the course of a year has barely budged, hovering around an inflation-adjusted $10,000, according to a State Higher Education Executive Officers report. But in the same period, the share of instruction costs paid for by actual tuition — not the sticker price, but the amount students actually pay after financial aid — has nearly doubled, to 40 percent from 23 percent.
“I understand why students are angry,” said George R. Blumenthal, the chancellor of the University of California, Santa Cruz, where student protests have erupted. “They have to write bigger checks every year, and they can’t get into the classes they want. The reality is they’re paying more and getting less.”
In cutting educational subsidies, states may be penny-wise and pound-foolish, Mr. Ehrenberg said.
Economists have found that higher education benefits communities even more than it benefits the individual receiving the degree. Studies show that an educated populace leads to faster economic growth and a more stable democracy, and benefits the poorest workers the most. The post World War II economic boom, for example, has been attributed to increased college enrollment thanks to the G.I. Bill.
Less-skilled workers have much to gain from enrolling in higher education, given the wage premium that additional training brings. State funding cuts not only reduce the ability for the poor to receive more training, but also disproportionately limit access to the fields that are most important to economic and job growth: sciences, engineering and health care.
These courses are especially expensive to teach partly because of equipment and safety precautions. Because these skills are in such high demand, professors also have more opportunities in the private sector and so can command higher pay.
State laws usually bar colleges from charging different tuition amounts for different undergraduate subjects, regardless of costs. Traditionally the higher cost of technical training has instead been subsidized with state funds.
“When they don’t get the appropriate level of funding, there’s a flight to cheaper programs, like general studies or the humanities,” said Nate Johnson, a higher education consultant and former associate director of institutional research for the University of Florida.
Florida International University graduates more Hispanic engineers each year than any other institution in the 50 states. Since the 2007-8 school year, the state funding the university receives annually per full-time student has fallen by $2,628. The university has been allowed to raise tuition by $1,233 in that time, covering less than half the shortfall.
Florida International has found efficiencies, like reducing energy costs. But it has also increased student-teacher ratios and eliminated some academic programs, like industrial engineering and dance, even as enrollment has surged. (Fine arts courses are also expensive to teach, partly because they require so much one-on-one time with professors.)
“There’s a lot of soul-searching in Florida,” said Mark B. Rosenberg, president of the university. “In the end if higher education is viewed by most states as a cost and not an investment, then it’s inevitable that this kind of cost shifting will continue to occur.”
If they are not eliminating job-friendly technical programs outright, many colleges are simply not expanding them to meet demand. Students then have to stay in college longer to squeeze in required classes, increasing both their debt and the chance that they will drop out.
At Wake Technical Community College in Raleigh, N.C., enrollment has grown by about 30 percent in the last three years, while total state funding has fallen by 21 percent, an amount not fully offset by tuition increases. The college cannot afford to expand its popular nursing program beyond its 275 slots, leaving 1,000 frustrated students on the waiting list. To keep these students, the college has enrolled them in a “pre-nursing” program, a new prerequisite for staying on the waiting list. But even those courses have a waiting list of more than 400 students. Some flagship universities in state systems, with relatively wealthy alumni and robust endowments, have survived the state cuts with less damage. The University of California, Berkeley, for example, has started a $3 billion fund-raising campaign and begun investing its working capital more aggressively.
Many state colleges have been leaning more heavily on the federal government, including through expanded Pell Grant funding and Recovery Act money. President Obama recently proposed a $8 billion federal package for community colleges to provide additional job training.
“There is this narrative out there that we have enough money in the system, that if we only spent it better we could increase degree attainment,” said Jane V. Wellman, founding director of the Delta Cost Project, which released a comprehensive report on college costs. “But we are not going to get the degree attainment levels the economy needs exclusively from finding ‘efficiencies’ here and there. This is not the miracle of the loaves and fishes.”