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UNL Graduation 2017

University of Nebraska-Lincoln graduates make their way to their seats for undergraduate commencement Saturday, May 6, 2017, at Pinnacle Bank Arena. 

Within the last decade, most states have seen the percentage of higher education budgets funded by state appropriations decrease as the share covered by tuition has grown.

Nebraska is no outlier, experiencing these same trends. While the extent to which the scales have shifted may not be as far as other states, the same tipping point is approaching where the burden may be shouldered more by students’ tuition than state funding.

This pattern is problematic, having the potential to price out access for some Nebraskans at a time when a workforce shortage looms for the state. And it affects every institution, ranging from the community college level all the way to the University of Nebraska.

Between 2009 and 2019, the number of states where the majority of funding for higher education came from tuition rather than the state budget increased from 10 to 26 – in red and blue states alike, according to the State Higher Education Executive Officers Association. Though Nebraska hasn’t reached that turning point yet, the Journal Star’s Chris Dunker reported that it’s gotten progressively closer:

* For NU, state support fell from 68% in 2009 to 59% in 2019, with tuition making up the balance.

* At the Nebraska State College System – which has campuses in Chadron, Peru and Wayne – that figure dropped from 64% to 57% over the same time, with the percentage of appropriations and tuition converging as soon as 2025.

* Nebraska’s six community colleges, which can levy property taxes, saw state aid dip from 34% to 27% in the decade. Meanwhile, property taxes jumped from 39% to 51% of their funding.

Both NU (a proposed 2.75% hike for next year) and the NSCS (approved increases of 2.5% in each of the next two years) will be more expensive for students going forward. Because they have an additional means of raising revenue, community colleges have been the only higher education in Nebraska to decrease the share of money generated by tuition – from 27% to 21%.

Keeping college affordable and accessible is critical as Nebraska needs to develop its future workforce in light of a student debt crisis that now collectively exceeds $1 trillion.

Projections indicate a wave of retiring baby boomers will actually decrease the number of workers within the next decade – by which point the state must be able to replace them.

And a college education represents the most effective means of heading this problem off at the pass. If not, the domino effect could result in a wage gap (stemming from lower educational attainment) and a dearth of affordable housing (because of salaries failing to keep up), among other consequences.

This circle has the potential to be a vicious one, too, if left unchecked. But no better antidote to these potential pitfalls exists than managing tuition levels and keeping the state’s best investment in its future steady.

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