Justine Goeden finds herself constantly running between her classes at the University of Nebraska at Omaha and two jobs — one at a day care center, another at a doctor's office.
But it's a price that the 20-year-old West Point, Neb., native is willing to pay to help her get her degree in library science. The jobs are a must when it comes to paying for tuition, fees, room and board and “outrageously expensive” textbooks.
Given all that, Goeden naturally welcomed the news last week that Gov. Dave Heineman and state education leaders are proposing a two-year freeze in tuition rates at the University of Nebraska and Nebraska state colleges, with the state making up for the forgone tuition dollars with added tax-dollar support.
While the tuition freeze plan is unusual for the state, it represents something that isn't new at all: the priority that Nebraska policymakers have given to higher education funding. Nebraska traditionally has provided among the healthiest state appropriations to higher education in the country.
And that commitment has barely wavered over the past decade, even as two recessions have ravaged state budgets for higher education across the United States, including in neighboring Iowa.
When public dollars for higher education are adjusted for inflation and enrollment growth, Nebraska is one of only four states in which funding has grown since 2000. Over the same period, funding nationally has plummeted by 24 percent, according to a World-Herald analysis of the latest data.
Just on the other side of the Missouri River, Iowa has slashed its tax-dollar budget for higher education by nearly 46 percent over that time. That trails only Georgia as the biggest hit that higher education has taken in any state.
“We've seen states substantially disinvest in higher education,'' said Dennis Jones, a Nebraska native who directs the National Center for Higher Education Management Systems in Colorado. “Nebraska is one of the few exceptions.''
Like most states, Iowa has largely dealt with the cuts in public dollars by raising tuition, a trend that has fundamentally shifted the cost of higher education away from taxpayers and onto students and their families. Across the country, those shifts have boosted student debt loads to historically high levels, raising questions about the debt's impact on the economy and whether some low-income students are being shut out.
Nebraska has hardly been immune to such tuition increases in recent years — helping to spark the freeze proposal. But as a whole, the cost shifting between public dollars and tuition in Nebraska over the past decade has been less dramatic than in other states.
Nebraska officials hope their support for higher education will continue to pay future dividends, including a better-educated workforce and increased economic growth. Nebraska, to meet the future demand for workers, is expected to need tens of thousands more two- and four-year graduates.
“If Nebraska is going to be one of the winners of the 21st century, it's going to take human capital and keeping and attracting talent,'' said J.B. Milliken, president of the University of Nebraska system. “I'm a huge believer that public higher education is a public good, producing a competitive and knowledgeable workforce.''
To fund the freeze, Heineman proposed boosting state higher ed appropriations by $68 million over two years. It remains to be seen whether the Legislature will go along with the plan, but Nebraska policymakers have a history of strong tax support for public universities.
In 2011, the most recent year for which national data is available, Nebraska's state and local tax support for public colleges, universities and community colleges ranked seventh among the states on a per-capita basis, and ninth when such dollars are measured per full-time equivalent student. The analysis includes all public support for higher education, including state dollars and the property tax dollars that support Nebraska's community colleges.
States' levels of public support for higher education stem from politics and history and vary widely. Marshall Hill, director of the Nebraska Coordinating Commission on Postsecondary Education, said strong support for education seems ingrained here.
“Residents in this state feel a real kinship with their education system,'' he said. “They are willing to support education, whether it's K-12 or higher ed.''
But while leaders in most states generally say they support higher education, that commitment has been put to the test over the past decade.
Two recessions, in 2001 and the Great Recession that began to hit home in fall 2008, caused state tax collections to crater. Collectively, the states were forced to deal with some $500 billion in budget shortfalls over four years.
In most cases, higher education, one of the largest discretionary programs in state budgets, was a prime target for cuts.
Lawmakers also are reluctant to increase taxes, especially when they know that higher education leaders can turn to another revenue source to make up for any cuts: tuition. Together, tuition and state tax dollars traditionally pay the lion's share of public colleges' instructional costs.
Between 2000 and 2011, when adjusted for inflation and enrollments, public dollars appropriated to higher education fell nationally by almost a fourth.
The cuts came as the economic downturn was swelling college enrollments. Many laid-off workers and recent graduates sought more education after failing to find work in a tough job market.
The result at many institutions of higher education across much of the nation has been program cuts, reduced course offerings, employee furloughs, faculty salary freezes and tuition increases.
Nebraska, with its diverse economy and strong agriculture sector, fared better than most states during the downturn, leaving lawmakers here with smaller budget gaps to close. Nebraska's enrollment growth also was smaller. Still, the state did not completely avoid the trends buffeting higher education.
While the Legislature and Heineman managed to largely keep higher education appropriations flat during the most recent downturn, the University of Nebraska and other public institutions have turned to tuition increases to keep up with rising costs and to fund improvements. Over 10 years, public college students in Nebraska saw total tuition and fee increases ranging from 63 percent to 123 percent.
But Nebraska's schools fared much better than their peers nationally. Overall, combined public funding to the university, state colleges and community colleges grew an inflation-adjusted 4 percent between 2000 and 2011. University of Nebraska leaders say they saw a 12 percent decrease in their appropriations over that time — still a small reduction by national standards.
And despite the tuition increases, Nebraska has seen little education cost burden shifting. Tuition carried 34 percent of the overall funding load in Nebraska by 2011, up only slightly from 32 percent in 2000.
Those are numbers that Iowa education officials look at with envy. With numerous steep cuts passed on by the Iowa Legislature, current state appropriations to Iowa's public universities have been reduced to approximately 1997 levels. Iowa's per-student public support, once among the highest in the country, in 2011 ranked 40th.
Iowa college students by 2011 bore nearly 59 percent of the cost of college, up from about 35 percent in 2000. That was the third-steepest shift in the nation over that time.
To try to stem that trend, the Iowa Board of Regents in 2013 has proposed freezing undergraduate tuition in exchange for higher state appropriations.
Many of the states that have seen the deepest cuts in state dollars are familiar to Nebraskans: bordering states and Big Ten Conference states from America's rust belt — most of which formerly ranked as strong higher ed funders.
Between 2000 and 2011, higher ed appropriations dropped more than 30 percent in Missouri, Kansas, Colorado, Indiana, Pennsylvania and Ohio, and more than 40 percent in Iowa, Michigan and Minnesota.
While Nebraska does not want to be in that company, there are pitfalls to the state's approach, some observers say.
State support artificially lowers the cost of education that students bear, making education leaders less cost-conscious than they would otherwise be, said Jonathan Robe, a research fellow with the Center for College Affordability and Productivity in Washington, D.C.
And Jones said Nebraska also tends to fund institutions rather than to focus dollars on promoting desired outcomes, an approach that is either in use or in development in about half the states. “Nebraska is kind of averse to thinking that way,'' he said.
But Nebraska education leaders said there have been cuts as they've sought to minimize tuition increases and to focus dollars in quality programs. Milliken said the NU system has reallocated some $75 million over the past decade.
And while tax support has not been directly tied to outcomes, Milliken said the Board of Regents closely grades the campuses on 18 metrics, including boosting graduation rates, enrolling more top students and conducting more top-flight research.
Milliken and the coordinating commission's Hill say Nebraska's sustained support for higher education may already be paying dividends. Educational attainment levels in Nebraska are on the rise.
A higher-than-average percentage of Nebraska high school graduates are choosing to attend college in Nebraska, and 80 percent of them then decide to pursue their post-college careers in Nebraska. About a third of those who come from out-of-state for college also stay.
“They become our engineers, psychologists and public health workers,'' Hill said.
Students in Nebraska also tend to graduate with less debt, which Milliken said helps them jump-start their lives.
Getting a jump on life is just what Goeden, the UNO student, is hoping for from her college experience. She said she wasn't aware of Nebraska's strong public support for higher education. But that, along with the proposed tuition freeze, is something she appreciates.
“It does sound like a good deal,'' she said.
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Bad decade for higher ed
From 2000 to 2011, a decade in which states have cut back significantly on public funding for higher education, Nebraska is among only a handful that have increased spending. Conversely, Iowa has made the second-deepest cuts.
(Inflation-adjusted change in higher education appropriations per full-time student, 2000-2011)
|5 North Dakota||-1%|
|8 New York||-4.7%|
|11 North Carolina||-10.3%|
|14 West Virginia||-15.9%|
|15 South Dakota||-17.6%|
|32 New Mexico||-30.4%|
|33 South Carolina||-31.6%|
|35 New Hampshire||-32.9%|
|41 New Jersey||-36.1%|
|43 Rhode Island||-36.6%|
Source: Compiled from SHEEO data