The 11 percent that California is spending on corrections is higher than the national state average of 7 percent, and the Golden State’s university system is one of the most extensive in the country. So it may not be surprising that nowhere else in the country is the faceoff between prisons and higher education so stark. However, it is also true that 30 states have already slashed their higher-education budgets in response to recessionary pressure, and there’s every reason to think more cuts will be coming. (A recent report by the National Governors Association [NGA] predicts that states may not regain their fiscal footing until the end of the decade.)
Most states have a commission or committee looking for ways to reduce their budgets, and there’s not much maneuvering room, partly because of rising corrections and health-care costs. Those two, says John Thomasian, director of the NGA’s Center for Best Practices, are “sucking the wind out of any discretionary funding” states had. Most states spend most of their money on K–12 education, but that’s also the least popular place to cut, he says.
As a result, higher education is the budget item that ends up being particularly vulnerable. “When times are good, states put more money into it, because they know it’s their economic engine,” says Thomasian. “But there is no constitutional requirement to fund higher ed.” Governors and legislatures know that they can “let tuition make up the difference” so they treat their state colleges and universities as “a fiscal balance wheel,” acknowledges Terry Hartle of the American Council on Education.
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