Ask anyone who works at a public college or university about the impact of state support (or lack thereof), and they have stories to tell: of raises lost, of furloughs, of programs being eliminated and of positions frozen.
Here's a new measure of how bad it is: The researchers who produce the definitive annual study of state appropriations for higher education are being forced today to release data they know understate (in some cases significantly) the extent of the cuts.
As of right now, state support for higher education is up 0.9 percent for fiscal 2009, according to the annual study (known as Grapevine) produced by researchers at Illinois State University's Center for the Study of Education Policy. Grapevine is known for making state spending figures -- which in many ways are inconsistent -- comparable. The study excludes tuition revenue or debt used to finance facilities and focuses on state tax support.
When states enact midyear budget cuts, the Grapevine figures are adjusted, so that the data reflect reality to the extent possible. The problem this year is that some states moved almost straight from adoption of their budgets into budget-cutting mode. And while some states did that in fairly speedy fashion, only some have reported their cuts fully to the Illinois State researchers. In addition, many states are facing huge budget shortfalls but haven't completely figured out how to deal with them. Further complicating matters, many states or higher education systems are telling public colleges and universities to hold back on spending some of the money they have received from the state, pending a budget plan. So funds that have been appropriated may be -- in full or in part -- taken back at some point in the future. Barring final decisions, such funds count as appropriated, but aren't really available for use.
As a result, Illinois State's research team is calling the figures "a tentative picture" that would seem to represent the best public higher education could hope for in this "especially fluid and uncertain" year, and that almost certainly will go down in the months ahead. (In fact, Illinois State may issue an update this year, when budget cuts are enacted in more states.) Because states are at different stages of their budget processes, James C. Palmer, editor of the project, said it would be questionable to compare state appropriations changes from state to state this year as so many states are still uncertain about where appropriations may end up. The states that look better right now in terms of percentage change are as likely to be late on fixing their budget shortfalls as they are to truly be providing more money.
Even with all of those caveats, however, it's clear that this is going to be a bad year for state spending on higher education, and that the relatively good budgets for most of this decade are over. The statistical analysis is different this year because so many states have seen budgets drop so quickly just after having adopted budgets. But the trend, as Palmer notes in his written analysis of the figures, is hardly new. "Higher education is repeating a familiar pattern of retrenchment following an economic downturn."
Here are the figures for the last 10 years, released by Illinois State with the expectation that the fiscal 2009 figure will drop subsequently.
Annual Percentage Change in Total State tax Appropriations for Higher Education, 2000-9
Already, 14 states are reporting declines in state tax spending on higher education, and another 11 reported increases of less than 2 percent. Based on this data, which may change, states are being hit the hardest in New England, the Southeast and the Southwest.
One-Year Percentage Change in State Tax Appropriations for Higher Education
|State||Fiscal 2009 Appropriations||1-Year % Change|
|New Hampshire||$138,512 ,000||+4.1%|
|New Jersey||$ 1,984,924,000||-2.9%|