State Spending on Higher Education Has Held Steady — With a Boost From Federal Money

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An infusion of federal money in the wake of the pandemic helped keep state spending on higher education at basically the same level as the previous fiscal year, according to an annual report released on Tuesday.

The “Grapevine” survey, a joint effort between the Center for the Study of Education Policy at Illinois State University and the State Higher Education Executive Officers Association, shows that total state support for higher education in the 2021 fiscal year was up 0.3 percent over the previous year.

The increase was fueled by nearly $2 billion in federal coronavirus-relief money that the states received for higher education through the Cares Act, according to the survey, which provides a first look at state higher-education funding in the new fiscal year.

Without federal money included, state support for higher education was down 1.3 percent.

The increase in spending nationwide, as usual, masks a wide variation in support among the 50 states. Last fiscal year, only five states reported a drop in funding from the year before. This year, 21 states did so, even after including additional federal funds. The decreases ranged from 0.1 percent in Iowa to 17.8 percent in Nevada.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, 28 states reported an increase in state support, including federal pass-through money. Vermont was an outlier, with a 45.7-percent increase that stemmed from a one-time allocation to colleges. Other double-digit increases include Washington state, Ohio, and New Jersey.

Over the past five years, total state support for higher education rose nearly 16 percent nationwide from the 2016 fiscal year to the current one, according to the “Grapevine” figures, which are not adjusted for inflation. Sixteen states reported increases of 20 percent or more.

Five states, however, reported five-year decreases. That group was led by Alaska — whose university system in July will enter the final stretch of a three-year budget-reduction plan — at 22 percent.

With the current fiscal year coming to a close on June 30 for most states, the final effect of the pandemic on state higher-education funding is still unknown — but it appears less ominous than it once may have seemed.

“Current and anticipated federal funding to states and higher education has and could further mitigate the impact of the pandemic,” Jim Applegate, editor of the “Grapevine” report and a visiting professor at Illinois State’s Center for the Study of Education Policy, said in a news release.