FORT COLLINS, Colo. – America's public colleges and universities have burned through nearly $10 billion in government stimulus money and are still facing more tuition hikes, fewer course offerings and larger class sizes.
Many college students are already bearing the brunt of the cuts in their wallets as they prepare for their future careers.
"This next academic year is going to be the hardest one on record" for cash-strapped colleges, said Dan Hurley, director of state relations for the American Association of State Colleges and Universities.
Hurley said the higher education system has entered a phase in which cuts will begin to affect academics.
Public university systems used the stimulus to prevent deeper layoffs, maintain degree programs and keep campuses open and are now bracing for the end of the federal program.
The effects will be greater in some states than others.
Since 2009, Colorado has used more than $600 million in stimulus money for higher education, accounting for more than a quarter of the higher education budget over that period.
Stimulus money covered 35 percent of South Carolina's higher education budget in 2009 but less than 2 percent last year, according to a report by the New America Foundation.
California used $1.4 billion in stimulus money to pay nearly 30 percent of its higher education tab two years ago, but stimulus accounted for less than 1 percent in 2010.
Like most states, Nevada's stimulus infusion only softened a steep spending slide. The higher education budget fell about $210 million, almost 30 percent, over the last three years, even with the stimulus.
"We have frozen pay in the system. We have closed programs. We have cut back everything we could. You name it, we've cut it," said Dan Klaich, chancellor for Nevada's higher education system.
Without the stimulus boost, at least 35 states have been forced to make further cuts in higher education spending for the 2011-12 school year, with double-digit decreases in 13 states. That means tuition hikes, which for years had exceeded the rate of inflation, are even greater.
At Colorado State University in Fort Collins, students are paying about 20 percent more this year, up to about $8,000 for in-state and $24,000 for out-of-state tuition. For many, that means extra roommates, second jobs or giving up dreams of studying abroad.
The rising costs were the reason junior Ryan Thistlethwaite to join the Air Force ROTC program.
The human development and family services major pays out-of-state tuition with student loans and said he made the decision after figuring he would owe about $125,000 after four years at Colorado State.
He will not receive an ROTC scholarship, but he will be guaranteed a job after finishing school to help pay off his loans. "The money, I'd say that's 60 percent of it, why I'm joining ROTC," he said.
The cost shift from states to students has been going on for years, according to State Higher Education Executive Officers, a group that tracks college funding.
Adjusted for inflation, public colleges and universities in 1985 received about $7,479 per student from their states, with about $2,274 per student coming from tuition. The group says the amount coming from state budgets dropped to an average of $6,451 in 2010, while the tuition portion rose to $4,321.
Mike McNeil, who was helping his freshman daughter move into her dorm at Colorado State, shook his head at the tuition hike and the bind it places on middle-class families.
McNeil attended the university when the government picked up more of the tab. He now relies on money inherited from his parents and loans to help his two children pay for college.
"Back then, I worked at Arby's, had a summer job to pay for school," said McNeil, a manager from the Denver suburbs. "A kid working today, no way they could work enough to raise the kind of money you'd need."
However painful the rising tuition has been on students and families, it has not done enough to balance the effects of state budget cuts at many colleges and universities.
The seven-campus University of Maine system, for example, has cut about 20 programs, including Latin, and reduced employment by 7 percent since the recession began. Those cuts came even as Maine used some $29 million in stimulus money on higher education between 2009 and 2011.
In California, the state's 112 community colleges will offer 5 percent fewer classes this fall. At Bakersfield College, some 150 classes have been cut and thousands of students have been wait-listed.
College president Greg Chamberlain said community colleges are turning students away despite surging demand from the unemployed who are looking for new skills.
"We should be opening our doors further, not closing them," Chamberlain said.
At the same time, students seeking financial aid — especially those from middle-income families — also will have fewer ways to cope with rising tuition.
In Georgia, a lottery-funded merit scholarship that paid full tuition for in-state students with a B average has been scaled back this fall. Ohio cut need-based grants by two-thirds.
Awards from Minnesota's U Promise Scholarship, which guarantees need-based aid to resident undergraduates from families making up to $100,000 per year, have been reduced for students this fall.
The federal government has stepped in to help students from the lowest-income families, adding $17 billion to the Pell grant program in 2009 and 2010.
This academic year, more than 9 million students at public and private schools are expected to receive more than $40 billion in total Pell spending, or about $4,400 each.
The number of students receiving Pell grants this school year is up about 50 percent from 2008, reflecting a rise in student enrollment and the number of low-income students.
Budget cuts and tuition hikes at state colleges and universities are not just problems for current students and staff, said Paul Lingenfelter, president of the State Higher Education Executive Officers group.
Lingenfelter said higher education is trending away from the middle class, forcing students to choose between a lifetime of debt or diminished career prospects.
"The issue the country really ought to be worried about is all the people who aren't in college but should be," Lingenfelter said.
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