Austerity budgets, fiscal squeezes, and territorial obligations: the end of an era?

These two graphics (both released in the last two days) capture broad-based aspects of the fiscal squeeze confronting public higher education in the United States.

Source: Moody’s (2011) Weekly Credit Outlook, 31 October, p. 43.

Source: ‘Chart: One Year of Prison Costs More Than One Year at Princeton,’ The Atlantic, 1 November 2011. A direct link to the chart by Joseph Staten (an “info-graphic researcher with Public Administration“) is available here.

While these graphics are not comprehensive in nature, and I’m positioned in one specific state (Wisconsin), a number of dynamics are arguably intersecting:

  • Progressively reduced levels of state support for public higher education (see image 1 above). Despite this, there is no correlation, whatsoever, between declining levels of state support and the desire to govern public higher education systems and institutions.
  • A public university funding burden shifting to student-derived revenue (primarily via tuition fees). Indeed we’re past the tipping point now for, as Moody’s stated this week, “[a]lthough most colleges and universities are improving operating efficiency and expense containment, a college’s ability to increase net tuition remains a critical credit risk factor for the sector;”
  • Ideologically-derived views emerging, within some ruling political circles, that frame fiscal crisis as an integral element of engendering structural change within higher education systems and institutions. A case in point is this Cato Institute report (How Much Ivory Does This Tower Need?) and associated video coverage, both released last week;
  • Given the above fiscal constraints, increased competition for state support (e.g., prisons, as patently evident above);
  • Enhanced use of the principle of ‘flexibility‘ as a vehicle to (a) increase efficiencies, (b) ameliorate a symbolic but only small portion of budget cuts, and (c) gain enhanced control over the governance of higher education systems and institutions.

One of the ironies of the situation is that public universities in the United States are actually, despite their reputations, not very market-oriented in comparison to those in countries like Australia, New Zealand, and England (at least when it comes to one revenue stream – fee paying foreign students- that could be enhanced). See, for example, this Ombuds report (26 Oct 2011) from the Australian State of Victoria which outlines a variety of serious problems with the way Australian higher education institutions handle and support (or fail to) their foreign students.

In my biased opinion (after living here for 10 years), most of the ‘US publics’ are remarkably ‘public good’ and scholarly in orientation: they have long been willing to focus on serving their respective states’ residents, while also indirectly supporting foreign students via graduate fellowships, TA- and PA-ships, and so on. Of course they are mandated to support in-state students (especially at the undergraduate level), but still, the necessary ideological/regulatory work to engender systemic change to draw in substantially more foreign students has not really occurred, to date.  This is evident in the statistics profiled in one of my recent entries (‘International student mobility highlights in the OECD’s Education at a Glance 2011′), which again shows the US with a relatively low percentage of foreign students relative to total student numbers.

Will the future see a continued fiscal squeeze put on public higher education in the US? If so, what will ‘give’ even more that it has, to date? I’m particularly curious if the public mandate to serve state residents will loosen up such that the territoriality of admissions becomes progressively, if haltingly, more and more global. This is likely to be a hot-button issue in most US states, but it is one that needs to be confronted and debated in a serious way given the structural problems that regional (ie state) politicians have helped to create via year-after-year budget decisions that generate the patterns evident in the two images above. One way or another, confronting the austerity-induced fiscal squeeze that public higher education faces in the US cannot help but be a messy affair.

Kris Olds

38 thoughts on “Austerity budgets, fiscal squeezes, and territorial obligations: the end of an era?

  1. WOW. This is incredible; for all that I learned in college about how morally reprehensible the prison system has become, I didn’t realize my education was worth less than a year of incarceration. Its true that the prison system is one of the worst examples of capitalism at its best; and the disparity that it keeps locked away behind its bars is just ignorant. I would pray for change, but I know better – it has to start with us. And this article is a good place to start.

  2. This was an eye opening article in comparing prison statistics to education. The US at one time was number one in higher education, and has now dropped to number 6. When more money is spent on criminals than education it is time to re-address these issues.

  3. The statistics above are alarming. Why are we spending so much money on the correctional system in this country? Students and higher education institutions could greatly benefit from increased funding. If we spend more money on higher education we would see a valuable return in the investment. I agree, Fund colleges, not prisons!

  4. Wow. I cannot believe the images that are posted in this article. I live in NJ. It is disturbing to think that we spend more on an inmate than we do on a university student. What is even more troubling are the actual numbers. I cannot even believe that we spend $44,000 on a person who is in jail! Through an image alone I can see yet another reason why NJ is flawed when it comes to education.

  5. I also live in NJ, and I understand the calibre of university Princeton is. This is not an inexpensive school. Its education, like all ivys is top notch. This is a sobering report. I wonder if we could reduce ‘services’ to inmates unless they worked and earned their degree while in prison. Somone suggested this is democracy. It is not. The prison system appears to be more socialism. The inmates ‘receive’ no matter what they produce.

  6. This article is very alarming. It is sad to see that it costs more to pay for an inmate than it does to send a student to school. And unfortunately even more money is spent on inmates who are to be executed. I believe that an education would be more beneficial to the inmate and to society as a whole. On the other hand though, many of the inmates currently incarcerated are not fit to be released and we can not just simply release and educate them.

  7. Every year programs and resources are closing because of finance problems. Many students in high school and colleges/universities require these programs to help them with academic success and keep them off the streets. Would it be best to fund programs and resources that can help prevent our students from ending in jail? This article shows that U.S has its priorities backwards.

  8. I find this article profound. While I feel that it is idiotic and offensive to contribute more revenue towards confinement/ rehabilitation than education, I understand from a logical standpoint why this is a reality. Seriously, how many people would stand on the front line and gamble their reality for the rehabilitation of another that they felt was less worthy. It’s called “hazard pay!” Nonetheless, I do believe that if we spend money on rehabilitation that we should definitely expect to go above and beyond for education. Point blank!

  9. This article was eye-opening. I guess to add a complexity to the numbers, how many of these inmates are enrolled as students in higher education courses? For example out of the 820,000 African Americans in prison, how many are taking college credit courses or are earning certifications? What fraction of the state’s prison budget is set aside for higher learning behind bars?

  10. Very interesting article. Very shocking to see that more money is spent on criminals than on education. What is going on with the United States? As an educator it makes me feel like my job is growing meaningless.

  11. I agree with you. I do believe though educating them, and making education required to earn privledges would be a start.

    We also may then be able to have them more productive, learning new skills, practicing those skills with ‘distance’ or online jobs while protecting society. Money could be used to help repay debt, victim programs, and save up for new housing, clothes and vehicle for when they are released. Money could also be used for child/spouse support while in prison. Spending years being idle helps no one, and contributes to the prison repeat rate.

  12. Unfortunately in our country when fiscal concerns call for budget cuts and reallocation of funds, the effects are felt differently between programs that are “guns” programs juxtaposed to “butter”. programs. Money is taken from the “butter” programs; human services and education, and funneled into “guns” programs;military and corrections. Corrections is a big for profit industry; which as others noted, contains a disparity in the the population. Consequently, those who are incarcerated do get an education; in criminality and consequently they recidivate; thus, demonstrating a need for continued funding. As well, I think that a reason for education having a lesser priority is purposeful in that if the “”masses” are under educated; they will not readily question the status quo or advocate for social change. A responsibility, I believe, of educated individuals is to question and advocate. So as staggering as the above statistics are, to me it is no surprise. Just as a sidebar; for every dollar spent on incarceration; society could save approximately $6.00 on treatment for those who are incarcerated who have substance abuse concerns.

  13. If a prisoner is incarcerated they have free television, work-out facilities, etc…, yet college students may live off of Ramen noodles! There needs to be a better balance of the funds issued by the government. It is understandable that a certain amount of funds be distributed to prisons however, by providing more funds toward education for people would offer alternatives for jobs which may help prevent the unfortunate rise of criminals, lowering the costs of prisons, and preventing negative outcomes.

  14. It is sad to see that we as a nation spend so much on prisons and incarcerations instead of education. I understand that it is important not to appear like a “bully” nation that abuses those that are in prisons, and I’m also sure some spending is for preventative measures to avoid lawsuits for being treated unfairly, but when you look at the numbers, we really need to straighten out our priorities. It seems we would rather point out and accuse somebody of wrongdoing and lock them up rather than teach them how to do thing right or give them hope through education. I also noticed, ironically, that the dip in government appropriations for higher education started in 2012. Now, what did we start funding around that timeframe that would be the cause for sucking away appropriations for education? As we fund more expensive endeavors, we forgot about something very important for our future and something we quite often take for granted; a good education and a knowledgeable and respected culture and society.

  15. @ Hendersondebbie

    I agree, allowing criminals to sit idly awaiting release does exactly nothing for the rehabilitation process. We definitely need to setup some programs that actually aid in the rehabilitation of those imprisoned. I would actually suggest making education a requirement for the entire prison population. The reality is less than 10% of the prison population is serving sentences without the possibility of parole. While education is not something that everyone would choose, should prisoners really have a choice?

  16. I agree with the idea of setting up some programs that aid in the rehabilitation process Sunshine. Unfortunately we cannot force people in prison to earn an education. As good as that sounds, I am sure there are many in prison that do not want an education. Many people are stubborn and will not be forced to do something they do not want to do. I think an education would be a better alternative though that would probably have a positive impact on society.

  17. Geniababy
    I am with you on that . I am a mother of a college age son who is trying to find ways to gwt the money to pay for his education. He has no crimal recored but has to beg to get any kind of help.I think it is high time that we put money in to the youth that have done their best. A teenager should not have to wait until he is a convicted felon to be able to afford college.

  18. Education is definately the best idea for those interested, however for the prisoners that have no interest in education they could develop skills to assist them in other jobs (i.e., vocational education such as trades in other industry’s, perhaps beauticians or brick layers, etc…). Do they offer those choices in prison? How much would that cost the taxpayers?

  19. I agree it seems we have our priorities misplaced. I am aware of funding available to community colleges to provide liberal arts education to incarcerated youth (18-23 years old). Participation is considered a privilege and not mandated. For many participants this provides a focus and hope for the future. It would seem supporting programs like this would be a benefit for all involved and potentially have a positive social impact.

  20. Hello

    There is a LOT of statistical data here which is quite informative and surprising. With regards to the levels of international students choosing to (or not) study in the U.S. I’m interested in discovering their reasons for coming or deciding to study elsewhere. I’d love to know if incentives or greater support are offered in other countries or if many students are somewhat uncomfortable with promotion of globalisation and education.

  21. This article is upsetting. I originally wanted to compare degree completion to incarceration, and with United States ranking first in having the most incarcerated individuals, and sixth in degree completion, I thought that the country with the most degrees would have the least amount of incarceration. I then saw Russia which ranks second in both categories. It would be interesting to know the overlap of both degree holding individuals in prison as well as how many prisoners are trying to get an education while in prison.

    I understand the importance of spending money to keep society safe, but it is also important to spend at least the same proportion of money to show how much we value education as a country.

  22. Now, although I agree with the fact that education in the prision system should be administered, but it also seems as if the prision system is like college living on campus. You have 3 times a day you eat, you can earn money, you can get an education, you have recreational time, etc. This is why we have repeat offenders because prison has become a palace.

  23. Wow, I did not realize how less education is worth compared to going to prison. I know the price of some universities that are not worth that amount of money for the 4 year period. Something has to improve either the legal or the educational system, but preferably both!!!!!

  24. It is truly disheartening to see higher education suffering at the hands of the government. I also agree it was very sobering to see the prisoners being funded more than students. Although financial budgets have been cut, higher education has come up with inventive ways to increase education and income on their own. One of the ways higher education had increased funds in through technology creating many more portals for higher education to extend beyond the classroom walls. I would have believed this alone to improve U.S. funding,enrollment, and degree attainment . Therefore, it was hard to see the staggering drop in percentage and rating for degree attainment in the U.S. that was given above. It is obvious that U.S. higher education should research what other countries have implemented to achieve success. Other countries have certainly researched and learned from our mistakes and successes. Why shouldn’t we learn from theirs?

  25. This articles gives a great insight to what has happened to our public education system. I was high school teacher in the Greater Phoenix,AZ area for the past seven years and it is pathetic to see the state of some of our classrooms and facilities and then hear that the sheriff is getting a brand new holding center! Maybe, just maybe, if we focused more in our children’s education we can PREVENT the overcrowding jails.

  26. The values in America are definitely misconstrued. I understand equal rights and even in incarceration, certain rights should still be honored but what happened to the ideology of violating society means being stripped off rights? The only true difference in someone on campus and someone in prison is the right and ability to vote and ability to come and go at leisure. But yet money is poured into prisons and more prisons are being built but colleges are being forced to merge to survive financially and tuition is becoming an astronomical debt that follows the student for 20+ years.

  27. According to the Princeton University website, it costs $53, 670 to go to school for one year (2011). My undergrad tuition cost was a third of that. I think this demonstrates where the priorities of the government reside. Higher education seems to be harder and harder to access, not only because of cost, but because the comfortability of the nations incarcerated seem to weigh in as more of a concern than the country’s college students. To add insult to injury, Kris Old’s (2011) research concludes that in comparison to other countries, the American university is not as “market-oriented” as others. If the United States is going to continue to compete as a country in the global market, the reassessment of it’s priorities are going to be detrimental. Great read and very informative.

  28. It is staggering to note the comparison between incarceration and an education at Princeton. First and foremost, the prison system needs an overhaul. There are many prisoners that could and should benefit from community service programs instead of incarceration. This would, in turn, free up the prisons for violent crimes. Second, education should have a higher value to our society as a whole. Educated individuals make better choices. The cost of tuition at Princeton and the cost of incarceration are both more than the yearly average income in my state.

  29. I think it is a catch 22. Some people are in prison indirectly because of the lack of education, so you would think if they realize this, they would be encouraged to make the change and seek educational opportunity. On the other hand, I agree with Lockner, some people are just plain stubborn. I know that educational attainment cannot be a condition of release, but I think that it should be incorporated into the rehabilitation process somewhere.

  30. This is truly a topic to be discussed a long time. If the public mandate to serve state residents is not a primary focus, and funds are directed to other programs, then raising the tuition would be a choice for higher education institutions. Some of the money is allocated to the research, and I believe this is needful to keep instructors up to date in their research. This is wiseful spending.

  31. I was very surprised after reading this article. I would have never thought to compare higher education and the prison system. This article was very relevant and something I feel as a society we need to work on. Our government should be promoting learning. It is really sad that the first area we cut is education. It makes sense to me that with higher education standards it would cut down on the amount of crime therefore on inmates which would lighten the burdan on the prison system.

  32. Some states in the US spend nearly twice as much per year on prisons than they do on higher education. While student populations are rising through the roof and prison populations are thankfully dropping, states are still putting their money in the wrong spot. Prisons are a place for society to rot; higher education is where society advances itself through the success of all of its individuals. The US and its states should take a new and fresh look at where their money is going and where their priorities are.

  33. This one hit home for me. So states and governments are spending more on prisons than they are on education? Really? Who does that- only in America! The country where food is thrown away from out schools daily yet we send students home on those same days, hungry and without food. So it really should not amaze me that we invest in prisons yet appropriate for higher education. It makes no sense for atmospheres of learning having to compete with correctional facilities for dollars. This constant focus on money is having a negative impact on the quality of education we are providing. At my current institution, quality of education has consistently taken back seat to the quantity of students. We need 1500 and regardless of what we do once they are here, we just need the numbers to make budget. I just hope that we get back to where we need to be and how we need to take the money out and therefore find the happy balance.

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