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War on the Young: College Edition

It’s no secret that the recession caused states to cut back aid to public colleges. Now we know more about how deep those cuts really were. A study by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities found that state spending per student on public colleges fell by 28 percent over the past five years and as by as much as half in some states.

What the study doesn’t tell us is that the belt tightening on education spending is merely another front in the war on the young. Pension payments and medical benefit costs are major factors in state budget crunches around the country; state spending on public education makes for an easy target of opportunity for lawmakers who don’t want to risk political capital to make unpopular cuts in programs for the elderly and for retired public workers.

One would hope public universities would try to make a virtue out of this necessity. Many colleges already spend far too much on administration and on new construction projects. A bit of fat trimming wouldn’t hurt. But this isn’t what is happening here. Tuition is rising nearly as fast as state input is falling: average tuition has risen by about 27 percent over the past five years.

Shoveling a dwindling supply of public funding into the old system won’t fix the problems in higher education. Developing better, cheaper ways to run college is a must.

But even if the states do this, they are still going to have to take a long, hard look at how much of their spending goes to the old rather than the young.

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