Reinvesting in Higher Ed
A Lesson From Four States

Post Jeff Kolnick

The dramatic increase in college tuition and fees over the past dozen years is justifiably big news. Few doubt that the massive disinvestment of public dollars is responsible for much of the rising cost of higher education, skyrocketing student loan debt, and the massive use of low wage contingent faculty.

What is less well known is that a significant number of states, pushed by broadly based citizen coalitions, have begun bending the cost curve back in the direction of public support for higher ed.

At a recent meeting of the Campaign for the Future of Higher Education, faculty and staff featured the ways that citizens, acting in coalition, are working to restore the public in public higher education. Most revealing was that four states — Washington, California, Minnesota, and Massachusetts — have raised progressive revenue, reinvested hundreds of millions of new dollars into public higher education, and held tuition constant.

While this infusion of new money does not replace all of the resources that have been cut, it is a step in the right direction.

Here is how they did it.

In Washington, after four years of dramatic reductions in state support and tuition increases, students, faculty, and alumni worked together to demand reinvestment in public higher education. The Republican majority in the Senate proposed a tuition freeze but offered no additional funding. This would have reduced the number of courses offered and increased time to graduation, ultimately shifting more of the burden of paying for college to students and their families. The Democratic majority in the House refused to freeze tuition without reinvestment in higher education. Legislators from both parties overwhelming voted to close a tax loophole that exempted wireless telecommunication service providers from some taxes. Most of the $110 million raised was directed toward higher education and facilitated a one-year tuition freeze.

In California, a similar coalition led to voters approving Proposition 30 that called for “Temporary Taxes to Fund Education.” Prop 30 included a .25 percent increase in sales tax for four years and four new high-income tax brackets (from $250,000 to $1 million) in effect for seven years. Much of this new revenue will be invested in public higher education. Gov. Jerry Brown’s plan is to freeze UC and CSU resident tuition from 2013/14 through 2016/17 and to pay for that with new revenue.

In Minnesota, a movement led by faculty in the State Universities convinced Gov. Mark Dayton and the Democratic state legislature to increase funding for higher education by $250 million — a 10 percent increase over the last biennium. This new money led to a two-year tuition freeze at the University of Minnesota and all State Colleges and Universities. Just recently, both systems announced a third year of stable tuition. The combination of public investment and a tuition freeze has bent the cost curve back and moved Minnesota closer to paying the state mandated two-thirds of the cost of a college education. This was made possible by an increased income tax on the top 2 percent of earners and an increase in the cigarette tax. The law that increased investment in higher education also included language designed to focus the new money on classroom instruction rather than costly administration.

Meanwhile in Massachusetts, after two years of lobby days that packed the halls of the State House with students, staff and faculty, thousands of phone calls and letters, and unprecedented cooperation among higher ed stakeholders, many years of state disinvestment in public higher education was reversed.  Gov. Deval Patrick’s 2013-14 budget included large and progressive tax reform. While the Legislature rejected most of this, they still found money to fund substantial increases to higher education and a freeze on mandatory student fees. UMass President Caret actively campaigned for “50/50” — a commitment that the state would once again allocate 50 percent of the costs of educating students, with the remaining 50 percent covered by students, their families, and financial aid.  This simple formula caught on and provided an easy framework for a successful campaign.  The monies allocated by the legislature would allow UMass to get to 50/50 in two years and the State Universities in three years.

Thanks to a coalition of activist students, taxpayers, education unions, professionals, and courageous elected officials, the future of public higher education looks brighter in some states. Taken together, the four states have proven that the new normal of austerity and crushing debt can be turned around. They have proven that with new revenue we can make quality higher education more accessible and affordable.