Are state-funded universities on the decline?

Some officials are concerned that they could vanish completely if current trends continue.

AP Photo/Seth Perlman/File
In Springfield, Illinois, students and lobbyists gather outside the Senate chambers to lobby their lawmakers against budget cuts affecting education spending at the state Capitol, Tuesday, Oct. 20, 2015.

If the current pace of state funding continues, some estimates suggest that the system of state public universities could vanish within the next 100 years.

Both conservative states like Kansas, and more liberal ones like California, have recently struggled with declines in revenue, which in turn has translated into a sharp decrease in financial aide for all students. In Kansas, statewide budget cuts have meant a decline of 40 percent in financial aid money over the past 15 years – which has left more students picking up more of their share of the cost of tuition.

“It doesn’t take that long to get down to nothing," Bernadette Gray-Little, the chancellor of the University of Kansas, told The Atlantic, expressing her concern that the loss of state funds may mean the eventual decline of publicly-funded state universities as we currently understand them.

“Here in Kansas, our state has incrementally but consistently disinvested in higher education to the point that it is now significantly challenging the University of Kansas’ ability to serve Kansans and society,” she said in a statement.

In California, the situation has been even more severe. Budget cuts resulted in a tuition increase for in-state students of 5 percent in 2014, prompting massive student protests throughout the state. One reason for the change was the 2008 recession, which caused an approximate $460-million decline in state funding across the entire University of California system.

“What were once public universities are now private universities that receive some subsidy from the states,” David Plank, an economist at Policy Analysis for California Education, a non-partisan research center, told TIME.

In order to meet their financial needs, some universities are turning, with increased frequency, to their sports teams. Some schools are expanding their athletics facilities, while other schools’ athletics directors have considered offering alcohol for sale at football games as a way to generate more revenue for both their most popular teams and their schools.

Other students have turned away from public universities entirely, and are choosing to attend community colleges instead. The attraction lies not only in the offerings those two-year institutions provide, but also the potential to transfer credits to more traditional, “name-brand” colleges and universities once their two years are finished.

Some students, however, struggle with fears that a community college experience will not be fulfilling.

"My thing was that I worked hard in high school and I deserved to go straight to a four-year school," Sehrish Shah, a student at Northern Virginia Community College, told The Washington Post about the hesitation she first felt about attending a community college. "I was judgmental in the beginning. Now that I look at it, I can't believe I used to think that."

Public academic institutions are not alone in facing financial difficulties. In 2015, after years of financial challenges, Sweet Briar College, a private liberal arts school for women in Virginia, announced that it would be closing. A successful aid campaign from current students and alumni called Saving Sweet Briar, Inc., saved the school, but brought it back with extremely limited faculty and a much smaller student body.

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