Alabama’s cuts to state higher education funding over the last decade are among the deepest in the country, according to a new report from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP), a nonpartisan research organization based in Washington, D.C. The funding decline persisted even as the state’s economy began to rebound from the Great Recession.
Since 2008, Alabama has slashed state higher education funding by 34.6 percent or $4,290 per student, CBPP found. The state’s cuts are the nation’s third worst by dollar amount and fifth worst by percentage. Nationally, the average cuts since 2008 are 16 percent or $1,502 per student.
Alabama’s inadequate public investment in higher education over the last decade has contributed to rising tuition prices, often leaving students with little choice but to take on more debt or give up on their dreams of going to college. Between 2008 and 2018, the average tuition at public four-year institutions in Alabama jumped by $4,329, or 69.8 percent – far outpacing the national average growth of 36 percent. These soaring costs have erected barriers to opportunity for young people across Alabama, particularly for black, Hispanic and low-income students.
“Pushing the cost of college onto students and their families will not make our state stronger,” Alabama Arise policy analyst Carol Gundlach said. “We must invest adequately in higher education to be able to build an Alabama where everyone has the opportunity to succeed.”
Americans’ slow income growth has worsened the college unaffordability problem. While the average tuition bill increased by 36 percent between 2008 and 2018, median incomes grew by just over 2 percent. Nationally, the average tuition at a four-year public college accounted for 16.5 percent of median household income in 2017, up from 14 percent in 2008.
In Alabama, a college education is even less affordable, especially for black and Hispanic families. In 2017, the average tuition and fees at a public four-year university accounted for:
• 21 percent of median household income for all Alabama families.
• 32.2 percent of median household income for black families in Alabama.
• 26.8 percent of median household income for Hispanic families in Alabama.
“The rising cost of college risks blocking one of America’s most important paths to economic mobility,” said CBPP senior policy analyst Michael Mitchell, the report’s lead author. “And while these costs hinder progress for everyone, black, Hispanic and low-income students continue to face the most significant barriers to opportunity.”
Financial aid has failed to bridge the gap created by rising tuition and relatively stagnant incomes. As a result, the share of students graduating with debt has increased. Between 2008 and 2015, the share of students graduating with debt from a public four-year institution rose from 55 percent to 59 percent nationally. The average amount of debt also increased during this period. On average, bachelor’s degree recipients at four-year public schools saw their debt grow by 26 percent (from $21,226 to $27,000). By contrast, the average amount of debt rose by only about 1 percent in the six years prior to the recession.
A large and growing share of future jobs will require college-educated workers. Greater public investment in higher education, particularly in need-based aid, would help Alabama develop the skilled and diverse workforce it needs to match the jobs of the future.
“All Alabamians, regardless of their income or where they grow up, deserve an opportunity to reach their full potential,” Gundlach said. “Our state should end tax breaks for large corporations and invest in making college more affordable for the students who need assistance the most.”