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BOISE — A new federal report sends some mixed signals about how Idaho funds higher education.

Based on the raw numbers, Idaho’s public colleges and universities appear underfunded. In 2017, Idaho’s higher education system ranked No. 49 in the nation in total revenue collected per student, ahead of only Nevada and Florida, according to a Pew Charitable Trusts report released Tuesday.

The bottom line: Idaho’s public institutions received $25,433 per full-time student, nearly 31 percent below the national average.

But in some respects, Idaho’s funding picture is far less dire based on Pew’s analysis of the 2017 numbers:

  • Idaho actually invested a relatively large share of state tax dollars in higher education: $8,628 per full-time student. That comes in nearly 12 percent above the national average.
  • Idaho’s institutions rely less heavily on student tuition and fees. Idaho collected $6,760 in tuition and fees per full-time student, about 10 percent below the national average.

Those national trends come amidst an ongoing debate over higher education funding in Idaho.

For decades, Idaho has shifted higher education costs away from taxpayers, charging students and parents for an increased share of the costs of college. Defenders of the shift point out, accurately, that Idaho’s tuition costs remain among the lowest in the nation.

But critics say the rising tuition bills are pushing college out of the reach of some students, and this spring, State Board of Education President Debbie Critchfield urged university leaders to curb tuition increases in the future. And as the state puts an ever-shrinking share of the budget into higher education, legislative Democrats have accused legislative Republicans of starving the system.

Nationally, the Pew study focuses on some major changes in higher education funding.

From 2000 through 2015, state spending on higher education shrank by 30 percent per full-time student. Meanwhile, federal funding increased by nearly 25 percent per student.

However, state funding and federal funding are not interchangeable. State appropriations tend to fund a school’s day-to-day operations. Many federal funds go into research or student financial aid, such as Pell grants.

So, why is Idaho’s revenue picture so far out of whack with the national numbers?

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It comes down to several factors.

First, Idaho received a relatively small share of federal support: $4,170 per full-time student, about 11 percent below the national average.

Second, Idaho colleges and universities receive far less money from private donors, investment returns and endowment income.

Third, Idaho colleges have fewer programs that Pew describes as “self-supporting operations.” These standalone programs skew the overall revenue numbers. They account for $2,596 per student in Idaho, less than a third of the national average.

Headquartered in Philadelphia, Pew Charitable Trusts describes itself as a nonpartisan “global research and public policy organization.”

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