Are Idaho’s colleges and universities adequately funded?

Fred Birnbaum Education Leave a Comment

Earlier this month, Idaho’s 21 legislative Democrats signed a letter to BSU President Marlene Tromp to voice support for BSU’s diversity and inclusion agenda. Their letter also addressed higher education’s funding with the following statement:

“Because of the legislature’s neglect, tuition costs are rising… While some Majority legislators don’t see the need to effectively fund higher education, our educational leaders, like you, continue to demonstrate creativity in the quest to keep college affordable.”

These legislators argue that since universities now receive a smaller percentage of Idaho’s total General Fund, universities have no choice but to sock it to students and raise tuition. 

However, that’s an inaccurate picture: Tuition hikes aren’t due to legislative neglect. 

It is crucial to note the majority of universities’ funding does not come from the Legislature, either now or within the past two decades. Traditionally, Legislative appropriations for higher education (which includes money from Idaho’s General Fund and the State Endowment Land Fund), when combined with tuition money, represent about 40 to 44 percent of universities’ total funding.

So where do Idaho’s public colleges—BSU, the University of Idaho, Idaho State University, and Lewis and Clark State College—get most of their money? The majority comes from other fees, federal and state grants and contracts, gifts, and enterprises. Of particular note is the federal funding windfall, which has increased dramatically in recent years. In FY01, the Idaho Legislature appropriated about $215 million in General Funds, while the federal government contributed about $165 million. In FY19, the state contributed about $296 million, but the federal chunk is now nearly $400 million. 

So while it’s true that Idaho’s legislators funneled a larger percentage of the State General Fund to higher education back in 2001 than they do today, that fact is only a smokescreen. State Legislative General Fund appropriations account for only about 22 percent of universities’ budgets (down from around 27 percent before the recession), but other sources of funding, like federal money, have risen dramatically.

So when universities like BSU raise student tuition, we can’t point fingers at the Legislature. In reality, the university collection of total dollars per student has trended up, not down, even when adjusted for inflation. 

To top off the funding largesse, tuition costs have risen far faster than inflation – for decades. 

In the fall of 1994, the average tuition and fees for a full-time undergraduate totaled $1,510. Fast forward to this coming fall: The average tuition is $7,807, an increase of about 417 percent. However, if tuition only increased at the rate of inflation, students would be paying about $2,614. Similarly, in the fall of 2000, average tuition was $2,466. If adjusted for inflation since 2000, student tuition would be about $3,664 today. 

This means colleges have increased tuition rates far above what’s necessary to keep pace with inflation, and students are shouldering an increasing burden for college. 

Does this imply colleges and universities have vast funding gaps they must fill by increasing tuition? No. Given their multiple funding sources, Idaho higher education should have no funding needs that require large student tuition or General Fund appropriation increases.

The problem is not the Legislature’s stinginess, it is universities’ appetite for money. During the 2020 legislative session, let’s turn our focus to where colleges and universities spend their money.