Funding Cuts to Universities Vary Widely by State

Explosive data? Bland cover muffles alarm over shrinking budgets.

National Science Board

A new analysis by the National Science Board reveals that the recent cuts in state support for the most research-intensive public universities in the United States have not occurred uniformly across the country. But the board, the oversight body for the National Science Foundation (NSF) warns that, in toto, the reductions are making it harder for those elite institutions to train the next generation of scientists and engineers and carry out world-class research.

The mixed picture of state spending patterns emerges from a report issued today that expands on information contained in the 2012 edition of the biennial Science and Engineering Indicators released in February. Indicators is NSF's statistical bible on the global science and engineering enterprise.

Indicators had already reported that state funding for the country's 101 top public universities declined by an average of 20% on a per-student basis between 2002 and 2010. But that average hides considerable variation, according to the new report. For example, New York, with the 10th largest student population enrolled at its four research-intensive public universities, has enjoyed a 72% increase in per-student funding from the state. That's the biggest jump for any state. Wyoming, with only one such institution ranked in the top 100 by research funding, is close behind, at 62%.

At the same time, only three other states—Alaska, North Dakota, and Delaware—received a boost from state legislators in per-capita spending at their research-intensive universities. (California has the most such institutions in the top 101, with nine, followed by five each for Florida and Virginia. Twenty-two states have a single public university on the list.) And at none did the increase top 10%.

In comparison, per-capita spending has declined over the decade in nine of the 10 states with the largest number of students enrolled in public research universities. Four experienced a decline of at least 30%, topped by a 37% drop at Illinois' three such universities. The state with the largest student enrollment, California, has suffered a 30% drop in per-capita support.

The squeeze on state budgets from the great recession of 2008 isn't the only reason for the overall decline in per-capita state support, however. Recessions often trigger an increase in enrollment as unemployed workers go back to school to upgrade their job skills, college graduates pursue advanced degrees, and students feel more pressure to obtain a college degree. Thus, 47 of the 50 states saw enrollments rise over the decade, and in four the growth exceeded 30%. That double whammy—more students and fewer state dollars—has accelerated the spending decline on a per-capita basis.

"The Nation's public research universities play a vital role in preparing the next generation of innovators," writes board chair Dan Arvizu in an introduction to the 34-page report. "[T]he Board is concerned with the continued ability of these institutions to provide affordable, quality education and training to a broad range of students."

This is the board's second report stemming from the 2012 Indicators; this spring it analyzed the role of research in stimulating innovation. Arvizu says the board plans to revisit the perils facing public research universities in a companion piece to the 2014 Indicators report.