The higher education sector in the United States grappled with immense challenges in 2011, namely the deepening funding crisis and steep tuition hikes plaguing public colleges and universities. Bad as it was, the situation is likely to get worse as further cuts are expected this coming year.
Last year saw some of the starkest cuts in funding at state universities and colleges across the country. Nearly 40 states cut funding to higher education. Some, like New Hampshire and California, slashed their higher education budgets by nearly 50%.
While this year's budgetary crises were rough for higher education, they are likely to continue.
The recession could mean further cuts to university budgets for several years to come, with California being a prime example. In the past four years, the state has cut more than $1.5 billion from its public universities. And in December, Governor Jerry Brown delivered a further blow by cutting an additional $100 million each from the University of California, California State University and the state's community college system.
As funding was slashed, public colleges were forced to raise tuition fees in an effort to bridge the gap. Students across the country faced steep tuition hikes at the start of the school year. In California, for instance, tuition rose by up to 12%, following a 32% increase just two years ago, while in Florida, tuition increased by 15% for the third consecutive year.
Tuition and fees at four-year public institutions now average $8,244 a year, up 8.3% from last year, according to a recent College Board report. This year will undoubtedly usher in more tuition hikes as state and federal funding continues to diminish.
On a somewhat brighter note the Pell Grant, one of America's longest-standing federal loan programmes for low-income undergraduate students, was saved in a last ditch effort by President Barack Obama as part of the debt reduction deal.
However, it came with a cost. Hundreds of millions of dollars in graduate federal loans were done away with to allow for the $17 billion increase in Pell Grant funding. But the Pell Grant still faces an uncertain future. Cutting the federal loans for graduate students was only enough to preserve the programme for another two years, through to the 2013-14 academic year.
The steep tuition hikes and the fate of the Pell Grant highlights the changing demographics of the college population. As funding continues to be cut and tuition continues to increase, college may soon be accessible to only the wealthy and privileged.
As Michelle Ash Cooper, president of the Institute for Higher Education Policy (IHEP), told University World News: "This is a very serious picture, one that we should not take lightly," she said. "We would have more wealthy students going to college, and there will be more of a class-based entitlement."
Another significant development last year was the Occupy Wall Street movement, which began at Zuccotti Park in New York City, spread to several dozen US cities and abroad, and eventually came to a head on American university campuses across the country.
Students took to their campuses and the streets to decry corrupt university leadership and tuition increases, among other issues.
Most spectacularly, occupiers drew international attention at the University of California, Davis, when police pepper-sprayed a dozen peaceful student protesters who were trying to protect a small number of tents.
Berkeley also made headlines when police used batons to clear protesting students from Sproul Plaza. But the Occupy Cal protesters haven't backed down, calling for Chancellor Robert Birgeneau's resignation during a December rally in Oakland.
While the Occupy movement is still trying to find its mission, it's clear that university students will likely be in on the action whatever happens.
Private, non-profit universities in the US have fared better. Tuition and fees increased an average of 4.6% for the 2011-12 academic year, beating inflation, according to a survey conducted by the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities.
But private higher education did make headlines last year thanks to the wildly successful but controversial for-profit sector.
From 1998 to 2008, enrolment at for-profit colleges and universities grew by 225%. But the sector drew criticism from a number of states, as well as from the US government, for shady recruitment tactics and high student loan default rates.
Although a number of for-profit colleges did experience a drop in enrolment following the allegations, they will likely still remain a popular alternative to the traditional university system.
Daniel Levy, director at the Program for Research on Private Higher Education (PROPHE), told University World News it is not surprising that for-profit colleges have experienced a boom in business during a recession.
"Young people, or the not-so-young person, are not giving up that much," he said. "They might not be able to find employment, so the idea of increasing skills and credentials becomes attractive."
Despite the funding crisis, international students are flocking to US campuses. International student enrollment reached a record high of 723,277 in 2010, according to a report by the Institute of International Education, and numbers are expected to keep climbing in 2012.
China led the pack with a 23% growth in admissions offers from US universities, followed by the Middle East and Turkey, both with 16% growth.
As federal and state funding continues to decline, public institutions will be looking at ways to stay afloat. One idea gaining traction among a number of high profile universities in states like Michigan and Virginia is to legally change their status to private. Some of the top public universities are already more private than they once were as tuition spirals upward and they seek more private means of fundraising.
Obama has said he plans to make college affordable and increase graduation rates by 2020. But this year's presidential election will likely focus on more cuts to federal spending as candidates face pressure to balance the budget.
Higher education funding is even worse than this article portrays it. For example, no mention that the interest rates on all new and existing student loans double as of July 1, 2012 from 3.4% to 6.8%! Strange how Jon Corzine and his fellow MF'ers get to borrow at zero to 1% interest rates while our students get hammered for 6.8%.
I sure hope that this law changes before July 1, but I would not count on it.
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