It’s an article of faith among many progressives — see several comments in this thread for example — that the radical rise in tuition rates at public universities and law schools over the last few decades is in large part due to severe reductions in state aid to these institutions.
The actual numbers don’t support this belief: in fact they pretty much contradict it.
When reading what follows, I would ask readers who are enthusiastic supporters of public education in general, and public higher education in particular — as indeed I am — to imagine the arguments being made about supposed cuts to higher ed being applied to government spending they don’t like. In those contexts, I think, parallel claims that government spending on X or Y has been “slashed” would be considered transparently disingenuous by those who aren’t big fans of the military industrial complex, or farm subsidies, or tax breaks for SUV owners, or what have you.
As to the numbers themselves, I’ve found annual data on public university tuition and total state spending on higher ed going back to 1982. Here’s what they show: (Around two thirds of law students attend private institutions, or pay unsubsidized out of state tuition at public law schools, but for the purposes of argument I’ll accept the claim that rising resident tuition enables tuition increases at private schools).
Total state funding for higher education rose continually for the quarter century between 1982 and 2007, to the point where such funding was 55% higher, in constant dollars, at the end of that quarter century. This came as quite a surprise to me. I graduated from a public university in 1982, and have taught at another one since 1990, and for all of that time I’ve been hearing about the financial pressure put on public universities by cuts in state funding.
It turns out that university administrators and their publicity organs often use a rather special definition of what constitutes a “cut” in state funding for higher education, which they define as any relative decline in state tax revenues, relative to state spending overall. In this – and pretty much only this – sense, state funding for higher ed has “declined” over the course of the past several decades.
Now an alert reader will ask: shouldn’t the total level of state support for higher ed be adjusted for overall population growth? Yes it should – except the problem with this argument is that there weren’t more traditional college-age people in America in 2007 than there were in 1982, because in the early 1980s the tail end of the baby boom was passing through college.
It’s true that a much higher percentage of traditional college-age Americans are going to college now than in the early 1980s, to the point where by 2007, state subsidies per full-time equivalent public college and university student were only 10% higher than they had been in 1982 – but of course arguing that this means public support for higher ed rose only modestly during this time begs a bunch of crucial questions (Imagine arguing that military spending had “really” gone up by just 10%, because even though such spending was up by 55%, there were now 50% more people in the military).
It’s also true that state funding for higher ed declined sharply in the wake of the Great Recession, which put state budgets overall under tremendous stress, and that such funding is only now starting to recover. Total state funding for higher ed fell from $88.7 billion in 2007 to $72.2 billion in 2012, before beginning to climb again to $75.1 billion in 2013 (all figures are in 2013 dollars). This makes for a total increase in state funding for public colleges and universities between 1982 and 2013 of 32%, and no doubt the decline in such funding in the years immediately after the investment banks did a couple of trillion dollars of damage to the American economy played a role in tuition increases over the past five years.
But the vast majority of the increase in tuition at public universities in general, and public law schools in particular, has nothing to do with declines in state funding between 2008 and 2012, because the vast majority of that increase took place over the previous 25 years, when state support for higher ed was increasing sharply.
Average resident undergraduate tuition at public four-year institutions in 1982: $2,423 (2012$)
Average resident undergraduate tuition at public four-year institutions in 2007: $6,809 (2012$)
Average resident undergraduate tuition at public four-year institutions in 2012: $8,655
Average resident law school tuition at public law schools in 1985: $4,280 (2012$)
Average resident law school tuition at public law schools in 2007: $17,114 (2012$)
Average resident law school tuition at public law schools in 2012: $22,933
Public undergraduate tuition rose 181% in real terms between 1982 and 2007, while public law school tuition shot up an astounding 300% over this same period, even though, again, total state funding for higher education increased by 55% over this quarter century. (There were 74 public law schools in 1982, and 80 in 2007).
Total state funding for public higher education is not, of course, the same thing as total state funding for public law schools. Perhaps law schools have received a smaller proportionate share of the increases in state subsidies for higher ed over the past 30 years.
Nevertheless, the overall numbers here are so extreme that arguments to the effect that increases in public law school tuition are in any significant part due to cuts in state subsidies are surely wrong.