Thompson Hall at the University of New Hampshire. New Hampshire has some of the country's highest public college tuition and lowest per-student funding.
Lisa Nugent—UNH Photographic Services
By Kaitlin Mulhere
November 2, 2015

When looking at the cost of public colleges, national averages conceal an enormous range. That’s because some states are far more generous than others in supporting higher education.

What’s more, a variety of factors go into determining how much college will cost a state resident, including state wealth, state grant programs, state taxes and revenue, and demographic trends that are contributing to robust enrollment growth in some parts of the country.

The Urban Institute is out today with two reports and an interactive website that demonstrate that variability.

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Total state spending on higher education in 2014-15, the latest year the reports examine, hadn’t fully recovered from its pre-recession peak. Instead, it was almost equal to total funding in 2000-01, after adjusting for inflation.

The problem is, enrollment grew by roughly 2.4 million students in that time period. It has also grown faster in some states than others, meaning per-student funding varies dramatically.

Last year, for example, seven states provided less than $5,000 per student, while seven others provided more than $10,000 per student. The gap between the lowest per-student funding in New Hampshire ($3,660) and the highest in Alaska ($18,550) was nearly $15,000.

Wild year-to-year fluctuations in state funding also are a challenge for public colleges. In Florida, state funding for higher education increased 17% in 2008-09, then dropped about 25% between 2010 and 2013 before increasing 16% the following year.

That up-and-down funding directly affects families, since it’s difficult for colleges to guarantee a price for four years when they don’t know how much they’ll get from the state the following year.

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Many states have grant programs that lower tuition at in-state colleges, and those vary widely, too. Fifteen states devote less than 5% of their money for higher education to grant programs, while South Carolina puts 40% of its funding into grant aid.

Some grant programs are need-based, while others are based largely on academic performance. In 7 of the 10 most generous states (West Virginia, Arkansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Tennessee, Georgia, and South Carolina), less than half of grant aid is based on students’ financial need.

States’ sources of funding vary, as well. Wyoming, which charged the lowest average tuition in 2014-15, taxes natural resources and benefits from bringing in a disproportionate amount of money from out of state, according to the report. New Hampshire, which consistently has one of the most expensive college tuition rates, doesn’t have a sales or income tax, so it raises less money than other states.

All this variability makes it difficult to compare the circumstances students face in different states, something policymakers considering national solutions need keep in mind, according to the report.

“A clear view of cross-state variation is vital for understanding the nature and extent of barriers to college affordability,” the authors write.

Here’s a look at how much states spent per student, from the least money to the most, along with how much they charged in tuition and gave out in state grant aid.

State Funding per Student % change since 2004 Average In-state Tuition % change since 2004 State grant aid per student % of aid based on financial need
New Hampshire $3,657 -22% $14,712 47% $0 NA
Arizona $3,808 -32% $10,398 107% $46 100%
Colorado $4,009 -6% $9,487 106% $322 99%
Vermont $4,521 -18% $14,419 33% $630 99%
Oregon $4,547 -25% $8,932 39% $328 100%
Michigan $4,624 -30% $11,909 53% $225 99%
Pennsylvania $4,968 -39% $13,246 30% $843 100%
Missouri $5,347 -19% $8,383 14% $376 56%
Wisconsin $5,466 -19% $8,781 36% $507 98%
Ohio $5,508 -26% $10,100 -1% $244 68%
Rhode Island $5,668 -24% $10,934 49% $189 100%
Kansas $5,933 -17% $8,086 54% $125 100%
South Carolina $6,016 -11% $11,449 40% $1,888 17%
Virginia $6,044 -19% $10,899 58% $618 69%
Montana $6,151 17% $6,279 14% $123 73%
South Dakota $6,284 -5% $7,653 43% $122 4%
Washington $6,450 -20% $10,846 79% $1,318 100%
West Virginia $6,666 5% $6,661 49% $1,069 43%
Iowa $6,685 -16% $7,857 18% $276 93%
Louisiana $6,723 -25% $7,314 68% $1,360 10%
Delaware $6,739 -19% $11,448 40% $536 65%
Indiana $6,754 -20% $9,023 25% $890 98%
Nevada $7,103 -30% $6,418 81% $431 29%
Kentucky $7,188 -23% $9,188 66% $1,093 46%
Idaho $7,250 -15% $6,602 49% $65 29%
Utah $7,464 -1% $6,177 53% $46 31%
Texas $7,469 -6% $8,830 41% $725 100%
Oklahoma $7,498 8% $6,895 58% $577 89%
Florida $7,509 -14% $6,351 68% $590 32%
Alabama $7,524 -11% $9,470 70% $42 74%
Minnesota $7,524 -13% $10,527 32% $742 100%
United States $7,568 -9% $9,139 44% $707 76%
Maine $7,575 -12% $9,422 36% $242 100%
Mississippi $7,605 -9% $6,861 39% $207 30%
New Jersey $7,844 -25% $13,002 32% $1,252 98%
California $8,180 -6% $9,173 77% $989 100%
Arkansas $8,504 -4% $7,567 34% $1,073 6%
Tennessee $8,907 1% $8,541 61% $1,460 24%
Maryland $8,908 8% $8,724 4% $510 97%
Massachusetts $8,930 6% $10,951 26% $279 96%
Georgia $9,159 -2% $8,094 92% $1,521 0%
New Mexico $9,194 -9% $6,190 28% $1,065 27%
Nebraska $9,359 5% $7,404 27% $191 100%
New York $9,699 -7% $7,292 19% $1,079 97%
North Dakota $10,447 54% $7,513 32% $411 60%
North Carolina $10,923 -5% $6,677 52% $842 98%
Connecticut $12,564 1% $10,620 36% $290 99%
Illinois $13,182 51% $12,770 59% $712 100%
Hawaii $13,738 -1% $9,740 133% $75 100%
Wyoming $15,156 27% $4,646 16% $623 100%
Alaska $18,554 23% $6,138 45% $532 33%

*Funding per student and average in-state tuition are from the 2014-15 academic year. Data are from the Urban Institute reports, which pull information from the College Board, Illinois State University “Grapevine” reports, the National Center for Education Statistics, and the National Association of State Student Grant & Aid Programs.

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