How State Funding for Higher Ed is Changing: A Close Look

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How are states responding to a leveling off of demand for higher education from high school graduates? Here is a data dashboard to help you take a close look.

When Americans talk about our higher education systems, we point with pride to the wide diversity of offerings in the US. There are 7,000 post-secondary options that include colleges and programs offering certificates, or associate's and bachelor’s degrees in wildly divergent fields such as auto mechanics, cosmetology, accounting, computer science, history, mortuary science, political science, chemistry, and welding. And these are offered at public, private, not-for-profit, and for profit institutions. When we look at this wide array of offerings, it seems that there is some program, somewhere, for almost everyone who wants to pursue additional education after high school.

But it is really the public institutions that carry most of the weight when it comes to educating students in the US.  Just over 70% of the 20.3 million students enrolled in 2015, for instance, attended public institutions, and that percentage rises slightly when you consider only degree-granting institutions.

Access to high-quality, low-cost public education has been a hallmark of America since the end of WWII, when the GI Bill encouraged large numbers of returning veterans to enroll in college.  Attainment rates soared: It's almost impossible for most of us to imagine that in 1940, for instance, only about five percent of all adults had a college degree; that number was even lower for older people, and for women. By 2013, that percentage had soared to almost one-third of the adult population, fueled by government encouragement and investment, fear of Soviet dominance in space, increased access for women and people of color, and perhaps by the "Inheritance of Education" effect. Not only did college enrollments soar, but the number of institutions did as well, as the higher education market attempted to keep up with increasing demand.

But the population of high school students has peaked nationally, although there are some regional and local exceptions, of course. How are states responding to a leveling off of demand? Some data from the State Higher Education Executive Officers Association might help answer this question. (SHEEO does a more detailed dive on the data here.)

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