Socio-Economic Makeup of States Affects Higher Ed Funding

A new report from Demos, a national policy and research organization, looks at how various complex economic, political and sociological factors combine to determine how states allocate their higher education funding. The report's authors look at how these cultural dynamics drive lawmakers to either invest intelligently or foolishly and set the pattern that will influence higher ed funding decisions for decades to come.

David Weerts, the lead author, explains that those who look to the report – titled College Funding in Context: Understanding the Difference in Higher Education Appropriations across the States – for answers to the questions plaguing the public higher education systems in the country will be disappointed. Rather, the findings should be used to define rather than solve the problem – how population age, economics and even tax policies come together to push lawmakers to set either high or low priority on higher education in their states.

 For instance, youthful populations, high taxes, low unemployment and social, ethnic and religious values that place education as a high priority all make states more likely to fund higher education. On the other hand, the report states, anti-tax sentiments, heavy spending on corrections and health care and a history of strong private colleges that "thwart the development of public colleges" all make states less likely to spend on higher education.

"People don't realize how many moving parts there are to this," Weerts said during an interview with Diverse.

One factor that has outside impact is how much the state economy depends on industry — and even the type of industry plays a role. Having a highly knowledge-based industry in your backyard contributing to economic prosperity makes voters more likely to look kindly on a university system that supplies the workforce that keeps those businesses productive.

Weerts cites Louisiana, a state in which higher education dollars typically are hard-won. According to Weerts, the state's dependence on the oil industry – a field that had in the past been open to employees without a college degree – made funding the public university system less of a priority. As a result, the state's transition to a knowledge-based economy has been substantially slowed.

The situation in Louisiana stands in stark contrast to Minnesota, which the report describes as a "diverse knowledge-driven economy that increasingly relies on a highly educated workforce." That workforce, the report states, benefits from higher education and makes higher education "central to the state's economy," which entails agribusiness, manufacturing of medical devices, food processing and service industries including finance, insurance and real estate. "Furthermore, Minnesota has a rich tradition of civic culture and civically minded business leaders who have historically recognized the benefits of higher education," the report states.

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