In many states, one of the top policy objectives is to provide K-12 and college education for as many people as possible in the belief that a well-educated citizenry is good for a state’s future well-being. In Georgia, we see things a little differently. This state for years has made deep cuts in funding for public education, which has had the effect of keeping students out of the classrooms. You could call it the “Santorum philosophy” after presidential candidate Rick Santorum, who remarked last year: “President Obama said he wants everybody in America to go to college. What a snob!”
There was a reminder of this at a recent meeting of the Board of Regents, where we learned that enrollment in Georgia’s public colleges declined for the second year in a row. Enrollment is 309,000 for the fall semester that just started, dropping from last year’s total of 314,000. That was a decline from the peak enrollment of 318,000 during 2011.
University System officials offered several explanations for the enrollment decline. Among older students who work for a few years after graduating from high school and then go to college, enrollment rates have declined. That has also been the trend for colleges nationally.
In recent years, conservative state legislators have also put pressure on the regents to oust undocumented immigrant students from the public colleges. The regents have largely resisted that pressure but still adopted new policies that make it more expensive for some immigrants to attend a University System institution. Changes to financial aid programs such as the federal Pell Grant and the HOPE Scholarship have also made it more difficult for some students to pay college expenses.
Those are all plausible reasons, but the biggest factor of all was probably this: as the legislature has cut budget funding for the university system, it has become too expensive for some people to go to college.
In 2000 and 2001, the university system received budget funding that averaged more than $8,200 per college student. By 2012, the amount of budget funding per student had declined to $5,561.
Those averages reflect the combined $1.4 billion in budget cuts to higher education over the past six years that were prompted by the Great Recession and economic downturn. State funding once covered 75 percent of the cost of educating a public college student, with the other 25 percent covered by tuition payments. Today, the state budget covers only 48 percent of the cost of higher education. Tuition makes up 52 percent of the cost.
“There’s no question—as tuition goes up, it affects enrollment,” Regent Richard Tucker said.
What’s happening at the college level has been happening at the K-12 level. A decade of cutbacks in formula funding has left some local school systems so strapped for money that they are eliminating days from the school calendar to keep from going broke.
School systems once opened their classroom doors to students 180 days a year. Now, because of state funding cuts, some local systems have to eliminate as many as 36 days from the academic calendar.
So it is with higher education. As years of funding cuts have piled up, the university system has responded with tuition hikes and priced many potential students out of the ability to attend college.
The last governor to increase funding for education, Roy Barnes, got voted out of office. Sonny Perdue and Nathan Deal have presided over major decreases in funding, but neither of them suffered for it at the ballot box. A majority of Georgia’s voters are evidently comfortable with the choice that was made to reduce education funding. In our democratic system. the majority rules.
That said, I wonder if some day we won’t regret the consequences of that choice.