Amid a crisis of public college enrollment, tuition money sees biggest plunge in 40 years

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Tuition at public universities fell sharply last year amid higher education’s ongoing enrollment crisis—but, in a silver lining, support from states and federal stimulus funds has so far kept institutions afloat.

Net tuition and fee revenue—the amount institutions take in from students, net of financial aid—fell 3.3% from 2022, to an average of $7,353 per full-time student, according to a report from the State Higher Education Executive Officers’ Association. 

Although tuition has been falling in recent years, “this is the largest decline going back to 1980,” said SHEEO policy analyst Kelsey Kunkle.

The post-pandemic era has marked a sharp reversal of a decades-long trend in which public colleges became ever-more reliant on student tuition as states pulled back on their support. In 1980, when SHEEO started tracking this data, student tuition and fees, on average, made up 20% of a public university’s revenue, Kunkle told Fortune. By 2013, public colleges relied on tuition and fees for nearly they made up nearly half — 47% — of their operating costs,o and byin 2018, average tuition rose to a high of $8,117, according to SHEEO. 

The precise breakdown of universities’ public-to-tuition funding varies dramatically from state to state, but over the past four decades, public colleges have grown increasingly reliant on student funds. States have gradually reduced the amount of funding they give universities, pulling back especially after the Great Recession even as the costs of attendance rose—and, with each incoming class bigger than the last and students willing to take out loans, institutions were under little pressure to cater to the cost-conscious.

That trend might have kept going if not for the pandemic, which shuttered campuses nationwide and sent millions of students to learn remotely. Unlike typical economic downturns, the COVID-19 recession didn’t boost college enrollment; instead, between 2020 and 2021, enrollment fell by 3.3%—the largest drop in students since 1980. It has kept falling since. The number of students enrolled in public colleges and universities now stands at 10.2 million in 2023, down 12% from its 2011 peak. 

So far, universities, wary of their falling enrollment numbers and increased scrutiny over college affordability, have been loath to hike tuition.“There’s pressure to make tuition consistent, and many public institutions are unable to raise tuition or increase enrollment,” Kunkle said. 

Many have also been restrained by state officials trying to keep education costs down. Colorado’s recently passed budget limits tuition increases to 3% for in-state students, while colleges in Connecticut, Maine, and Texas have recently expanded free-tuition programs for residents.

“States, systems, and individual institutions are noticing and wanting to make efforts to address college affordability, and the ways they’re doing that is trying to keep tuition flat or keep it to minimum growth, below inflation,” Kunkle said.

For now, falling tuition has been offset by increased state funding, some of which has been boosted by federal pandemic aid. When state funding and tuition is combined, revenue per full-time student reached a record $18,301 last year, according to SHEEO.

“We hope states prioritize higher education in the way they have been,” Kunkle said, “but with upcoming budget strains, they’re going to face really hard choices.”

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