The Great Recession's Toll on Higher Education

The tight economy has forced many students to fight for an affordable, quality education.

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Most hopeful of all may be the structural reforms instituted by college leaders who believe the current funding crisis is not a result of the economic cycle, but a permanent reality. Cuts that reduce educational access or quality "threaten our viability in the competitive global economy," says William Kirwan, chancellor of the University System of Maryland. But reducing the cost of higher education doesn't have to reduce its quality, he says. "Can higher ed become more effective and efficient? Absolutely," he argues.

Maryland's public universities are coping with a $48 million state budget cut this year by spending down cash reserves, requiring staff to take unpaid furlough days, squeezing athletics budgets, and leaving lots of unfilled jobs vacant. But while the public flagship universities in California, for example, have filled some of their budget holes with $2,500 tuition increases, Maryland is trying to rein in tuition inflation. The flagship University of Maryland­–College Park has raised tuition only about $400, or about 5 percent, since 2006.

In addition, Kirwan is pushing Maryland colleges to invest in promising innovations, such as Frostburg State University's recent transformation of its Introduction to Psychology class. Students now have one demonstration-heavy lecture once a week, then attend a tutor-filled computer lab where teaching software helps them study and drill. Students are learning the material far better, test results show, and the reduced demand for instructors has cut the university's cost per student for the popular course from $89 to just $26. The students save money, too; instead of a $120 textbook, they buy access to a computer program for $50.

Kirwan, who is also at the forefront of a drive to stop colleges from subsidizing athletics departments with tuition dollars, says economic conditions have convinced him and a handful of other college leaders that it is time to shift focus from empire-building to money-saving reforms. Even during the boom years, most states were reducing the per-student subsidies for public colleges. Now that state tax revenues are diminished, universities often bear a disproportionate share of budget cuts as other spending programs—elementary schools, prisons, and federally required health programs—become more pressing.

[See a map of public college budget cuts.]

Students in many states should prepare for more cuts. Massachusetts, Ohio, South Carolina, Tennessee, and several others have delayed severe layoffs by patching budget holes with federal stimulus funds. That money runs out next year. If the economy doesn't improve significantly by then, today's grim situation at public universities could get a lot grimmer.

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