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An alarming drop in state support for universities

(MoneyWatch) The amount being spent per student at public colleges and universities has sunk to its lowest level in at least 25 years.

In 2012, states spent an average of $5,896 per student, which represents a 9 percent decrease from the previous year. This is the third year in a row of declining state support.

To give you an idea of how far state aid has eroded, the highest spending per student in constant dollars ($8,670) occurred back in 2001.

This grim news comes from a new report by the State Higher Education Executive Officers, which documented the continuing decline of state support for public colleges and universities.

The annual report also illustrates another disturbing trend: Net tuition revenue from students and parents covered 47 percent of public higher-ed costs. In comparison, in 1987, families only had to cover 23.3 percent of educational revenue at public universities. In some systems, such as the University of California, tuition now provides more than 50 percent of the revenue.

Unprecedented drop in state support

Paul E. Lingenfelter, the president of the State Higher Education Executive Officers, said the drop in state support was "unprecedented."

"The depth of the 2008 recession and the economy's slow recovery are reflected in the funding, enrollment and net tuition numbers for 2012," Lingenfelter said. "Tuition revenues are up substantially due to higher prices and more enrollments, but not enough to offset losses of public funding. Students are paying more while public institutions are receiving substantially less money to educate them."

One factor exasperating the funding problem has been the growing number of Americans who are flocking to college. In 2012 there were 11.5 million full-time students at state schools, which was a 12.4 percent increase from four years earlier. Public colleges and universities enroll more than 70 percent of all post-secondary students.

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