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Column: Higher education gaining more support from states

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The nation’s state colleges and universities finally are getting some relief from declining taxpayer support, which has driven a steady increase in student costs.

The economic crisis that began in 2008 was brutal; collectively, state funding for higher ed dropped from almost $81 billion in the 2007-08 academic year to $72 billion during the 2012-13 year, according to the State Higher Education Executive Officers Association.

Many major institutions receive less than 10 percent of their annual budgets from state legislatures, which has driven yearly boosts in tuition and almost a double standard in admission policies favoring nonresidents who pay far more.

But, with tax revenues rising, many states have begun helping their higher-learning institutions fulfill their claims as “public.” As The Wall Street Journal reported this week, 32 states increased their level of support in the most recent academic year, though the growth usually has been moderate.

Indiana recently approved $500 million more for its public schools, following four years of cuts that have forced them to up the charges to state residents as well as those from out of state.

Florida lawmakers are increasing higher-education funding by $314 million, an increase of more than 8 percent. In California, the newly found budget surplus means that as much as $2,500 more will be spent on each student.

The amount of increases as a whole are expected to rise as tax revenues fill up depleted treasuries in an improving economy.

It’s about time.

Most public schools were built with the objective of providing the state’s inhabitants with an opportunity for higher education at a

reasonable cost. They frequently had open-admission policies that gave every resident a chance to enroll.

By building and funding schools, states significantly improved the cultural, economic and scientific benefits of not only their own residents but Americans generally. Public colleges and universities continue to make enormous contributions to the nation through research.

Although the states in many ways still claim control of their schools through their legislatures and state boards of higher education, many public colleges’ funding comes from outside sources: private and federal research grants, foundations and higher tuition. Wealthy alums and other benefactors have helped endowments reach billions of dollars at some public institutions.

The University of Virginia’s state support is around 10 percent, though its endowment — at $5.9 billion as of March 31 — is the envy of even the best private schools. There has been talk of privatizing it, although that seems unlikely.

Open-enrollment policies have been altered dramatically — out of financial necessity and a desire to improve overall academic ratings. As state contributions declined, schools sought higher-paying out-of-state and foreign students.

As a result, many residents have found it difficult to gain admittance to their own state’s flagship institutions, which favor those from outside who can pay more — in many cases, twice as much.

It is not unusual for an applicant with lower grades and test scores to find admission in elite out-of-state schools, which accept them solely for their ability to pay higher tuition.

One granddaughter with quite decent but not superlative high-school grades and test results was admitted to an out-of-state school that would not accept its own residents with a similar academic record. She just graduated.

On the other hand, another granddaughter with an outstanding high-school academic record was admitted to five highly ranked “national” schools and opted for the in-state school, saying it would be silly to spend $50,000 a year when she could get the same education for $25,000.

It seems doubtful most states will return to the level of state funding they once provided. But any increase could relieve the pressure on general tuition and provide funds for maintenance and capital projects put off because of the recession.

Indiana’s lawmakers informed the schools that they would expect no more than a 2 percent increase in tuition for the coming academic year, with a sizable portion of the increase going for infrastructure needs. Part of a $250 million increase in Minnesota’s contribution to its public colleges and universities will be dedicated to a two-year tuition freeze.

It is heartening that state legislatures realize the benefits of these great schools, which in most cases still offer the best return on the buck for education.

Dan K. Thomasson, a Hoosier native and Franklin College trustee, is former editor of the Scripps Howard News Service.

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