Claims that college tuition in the U.S. has risen because of reductions in legislative subsidies for higher education are at best gross oversimplifications—an argument I made in a New York Times piece published last month. I noted that, although tuition at public colleges and universities has nearly quadrupled since 1980 in real terms (and tripled at private ones), total state appropriations have also risen dramatically.
It’s true that, at the state level, the 48 percent inflation-adjusted increase in legislative spending over the past 35 years hasn’t kept pace with the roughly 60 percent increase in enrollment in public institutions of higher learning. (Interestingly, because of the demographics of the baby boom, the number of adults between the ages of 18 and 23 in America today is almost equivalent to that in 1980, so the recent college-enrollment explosion has very little to do with overall population growth.)
First off, whether the government should subsidize an ever-larger percentage of the population attending college is—and ought to be—controversial. Thus, treating the reported declines in per-student subsidies as inherently bad is, in regard to that issue, question-begging.
My focus here, however, is on a more fundamental point: State appropriations are just part of the subsidization picture. Indeed, my calculations show that when considering government support for American higher education as a whole, subsidies for colleges and universities are—even on a per-student basis and despite the enrollment explosion—greater than ever before. In particular, per-capita government subsidies are far higher now than they were 35 years ago, when tuition was drastically lower.