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National Report Shows State Funding For Higher Ed Flat Despite COVID-19-Related Losses

Near 600 Percent Boost In Federal Aid Meant 4 Percent Boost In State Support For Colleges, Universities

Students walking on East Campus Mall on the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus.
Students walking on East Campus Mall on the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus. Bill Martens/WPR

Despite COVID-19-related losses and costs, state funding for colleges and universities across the United States remained relatively flat in 2021 thanks to a 600 percent increase in federal funds going to higher education, according to a national study.

Researchers at the Illinois State University Center for the Study of Education Policy found that while 21 states reported declines in higher education appropriations, $96.7 billion went to colleges and universities across the nation during the 2020-21 fiscal year. That’s essentially the same level of funding from the 2019-20 fiscal year.

“This funding level was only achieved with an almost sixfold increase in federal funds ($300M to almost $2B) channeled through the states to higher education. Direct state funding was down 1.3% from last year,” according to a press release issued by the center.

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The Grapevine report, which looks at state appropriations, shows Wisconsin state spending on the University of Wisconsin System and Wisconsin Technical College System increased by just more than $17.4 million, or 1.1 percent. When $46.1 million in federal COVID-19 relief funds are included, total support for higher education in Wisconsin grew by 4 percent.

Dr. Jim Applegate, a visiting professor at Illinois State University who oversaw the study, said it opened some eyes.

“You know, there was concern that the pandemic was just going to wreak havoc on state budgets generally and on higher education budgets,” said Applegate. “And I think what we see here is that overall didn’t happen.”

Last spring, the UW System projected around $212 million in COVID-19-related losses due to housing and dining refunds to students who were sent home after Gov. Tony Evers issued an executive order banning indoor gatherings of more than 10 people. In December, the UW System announced $99.3 million in federal aid from the federal relief bill helped offset some of that.

Applegate said he expects the most recent federal relief bill, signed March 11, will further mitigate any negative changes for higher education funding for the rest of the 2021 fiscal year.

“Even if it’s not designated for higher ed through the states, the fact that it mitigates state budget problems generally is helpful,” said Applegate. “Because when states have budget problems higher ed tends to suffer in general.”