-26%. I downloaded John Quinterno’s 2012 report, The Great Cost Shift: How Higher Education Cuts Undermine the Future of the Middle Class, and what did I get for my trouble? Minus 26%. This is one of those numbers that comes out of public sector bookkeeping. It looks simpler than it is, so let’s unpack it a bit. State funding per full-time equivalent student (FTE) dropped 26% between the 1990-91 academic year and the 2009-2010 academic year. This is in constant dollars and pertains to students in public universities. Keep in mind that this number does not reflect the absolute level of state support. Rather, it refers to funding per student. Thus, if more students enter college, but states are unable to commensurately improve their allocations, then funding “drops” in terms of this number. Don’t misconstrue this as some sort of general stinginess. In absolute dollars, the states don’t seem to be paying less. Rather, they are paying less per student.

That’s more than enough to make things interesting, for as we’ll see -26% is not a trivial number. Its effects are reverberating all through higher education, but the precise form taken by these echoes varies by place and time. I’ll consider three possible consequences, which seem to have received the most attention: student debt, the strategic direction of universities, and the composition of faculties. Let’s have a look at each.

We can begin with the most vulnerable population – our undergraduate students. The money for their educations has to come from somewhere. As states pay less, then someone else will need to pay more. That word “someone” is, of course, a politely oblique way of saying “you.” Universities have sought to make up this shortfall by charging more. During the aforementioned period — 1990 to 2010 — Quinterno tells us that tuition and fees at four-year public universities increased by 116%. Between these same years the median household income climbed by only 2.1%. This was nowhere near enough to cover the increase in higher education tuition.

To acquire these sums undergraduates have turned to educational loans. Since 1990, student debt has more than quadrupled (actually 4.5 times, according to Quinterno). In 2012 the U.S. Federal Reserve estimated that student loan debt had climbed to $867 billion (that’s with a “b,” not an “m,” and approaching a “t”). According to the New York Times, this translated into roughly $26,000 per student by 2011. The U.S. government backs about 80% of this debt, which could exacerbate budget problems. The remaining 20%, which is still a sizable figure, is owed to private banks. This is serious exposure for our recovering financial sector.

This funding model could leave students with more debt than they can practically retire. This would be especially true for those who fail to complete their educations in a timely way. This could also leave creditors at risk from potential defaults. These defaults are more likely to the extent that the economy remains sluggish and debt-holding students are unable to find adequate jobs.

Even with all of this borrowing it is not always possible for students to fund their educations. This is because the limits for government backed loans have not kept up with the increases in tuition and fees at four-year public universities. Hence, many potential students seem to be forgoing a university education, or perhaps receiving it through lower-cost providers (such as community colleges or online programs). At a time when universities need to locate new funds to replace their revenue shortfalls, the increased costs to students may cause schools to lose the tuition payments that otherwise would have come from many working and middle class families.

In response to these pressures, universities have begun to alter their missions. To keep up their tuition revenues schools have sought “new markets,” targeting educational products toward those that have the money to pay for them without outside assistance. In practice, this seems to mean the better-to-do and large corporations. Sociologists Sheila Slaughter and Gary Rhoades have written about this phenomenon. An important article appeared in American Academic, 2004 (pp. 37-59). In this paper, Drs. Slaughter and Rhoades make a critical distinction between “access” and “accessibility.” Access has been central to the mission of American universities, at least since the end of World War II. It refers to making education available to qualified students, regardless of their parents’ income, ethnicity, gender, or other factors extraneous to genuine academic success. Accessibility is somewhat different. These authors argue that the new goal “is to make higher education more physically accessible and convenient to employed persons in business, as opposed to enhancing access for those students who face cultural, social and economic barriers to entry” (p. 44). Trading “access” for “accessibility” could leave many deserving people without the opportunity for a college education. After all, there are many who are not wealthy but have the talent and motivation to earn a degree. Not only is it potentially unfair to leave these people behind, it is also bad for society as a whole. The rest of us might live richer and more prosperous lives if our neglected neighbors were given the opportunity to fully develop their talents.

So far we have considered the consequences of diminished funding per student on the undergraduates and on the strategic goals of the university. Relative declines in state support have also had an impact on the composition of our faculties. In a fascinating book, The Fall of the Faculty: The Rise of the All-Administrative University and Why it Matters, political scientist Benjamin Ginsberg provides some interesting facts. On the one hand, there is some good news. Universities are making sincere efforts to meet the needs of their students. Between 1975 and 2005 the number of students per faculty member actually dropped a bit, modestly declining from 16 to 15. Schools seem to have held the line on student/teacher ratios by fairly aggressive hiring. During these same three decades the number of full-time faculty grew by 51%. On the other hand, there are also concerns. According to an article from the Chronicle of Higher Education (authored by Audrey Williams June), in the past few years faculty salaries have grown slowly and, when inflation is taken into account, may have even declined somewhat. An even more pressing change has to do with the shift from tenure-track faculty with employment protection to non-tenured and part-time faculty. Dr. Ginsberg reports that from 1976 to 2005 the number of part-time faculty climbed from 31% to 48% of all professors. A reasonable interpretation is that colleges have ramped-up faculty hiring to meet student demand (good) but have been forced to use lower cost instructors with fewer employment protections (troubling).

One of Professor Ginsberg’s most interesting (and perhaps unexpected) observations is that growth among administrative and professional staff has not decelerated, at least not during the time period that he studied. Through the thirty years from 1975 – 2005, the number of administrators increased by 85%, while staff grew by 240% (that’s not a typo). Costs remain high, but there is no evidence that faculty are the culprit. Rather, many faculty members seem to be hurting, at least to the extent that they would prefer stable full-time employment. Perhaps future savings could be realized by further trimming administrative expenses, though it’s hard to tell without more information.

By allowing a decline in per student funding the states have inadvertently shifted costs to the universities. Universities have responded by shifting costs to their students, seeking new sources of revenue, and hiring more part-time faculty. As a result, many of our students have been forced to pay for their education with borrowed money or perhaps not go to college at all.