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Higher education in Nebraska is a diverse landscape. An examination of the most recent reports by the Nebraska Coordinating Commission for Postsecondary Education demonstrates the wide array of options for the 136,917 Nebraska students enrolled in education after high school. Programs span the state in communities from Chadron to Hastings to Omaha.
There are four broad categories of higher education in Nebraska. The University of Nebraska system, which is composed of five campuses, the three campuses of the State College System, the six Community College networks, and the 20 private colleges and universities. Collectively, these programs confer over 30,000 degrees and awards annually. The University of Nebraska system, State College System, and Community Colleges are all supported by taxpayers. Independent colleges do not receive funds from state or local taxes.
Nebraska taxpayer support for public higher education in Nebraska is among the highest in the nation. Every student enrolled in the University of Nebraska system is subsidized with over $11,000 of state income and sales tax dollars each year, which amounts to over $300 paid by every Nebraska resident. Taking into account state General Funds and Property Tax support, the 39,000 community college students in Nebraska receive over $8,000 per student annually in taxpayer support. On a per-student basis, the state college system receives the least public support, with $5,600 annually.
The University of Nebraska media blitz, advocating for additional state appropriations, gives the impression that they are the primary workforce development driver in the state. While they are the largest system, they only make up about 39% of the enrolled post-secondary students in the state. The vast majority of Nebraska students are enrolled in other colleges and universities. When examining graduation outcomes, Nebraska’s private colleges award 38% of the state’s Bachelor’s degrees, even though they enroll 25% of the state’s students. Private colleges also awarded more Doctoral and Master’s degrees than the entire University of Nebraska system, without receiving any state tax money.
Nebraskans have made a significant investment in a highly educated workforce through a strong financial commitment to higher education. In the proposed budget, to be considered by the Legislature, $725 million is dedicated to higher education. Community Colleges will collect another $320 million in property taxes. At $1.4 billion, that exceeds the $850 million for Medicaid and the $974 million for state aid to K-12 education.
On an annualized basis of degrees awarded, Nebraska taxpayers spend $51,000 per degree awarded by the University of Nebraska system, $45,336 per Community College degree, and $30,000 for graduates of the state college system. They spend nothing on the 9,500 degrees awarded every year by Nebraska’s independent colleges.
I am a strong advocate for higher education. I am privileged to have earned a Bachelor’s degree in Biology and a Doctorate in Veterinary Medicine. I am honored to hold a position as Professor of Biology at Hastings College, providing me firsthand knowledge of the value of higher education and the challenges faced by colleges and universities in Nebraska.
What is missing in the current budget discussion about state funding of higher education is proportionality. A 2% reduction in state appropriations does not cripple workforce and economic development in Nebraska, despite the full page newspaper ads. Many colleges and universities across the state have adjusted their budgets to reflect the evolving higher education landscape without devastating their local communities.
Most disappointing to me is the lack of attention to the disproportionate manner in which state colleges are treated compared to the University system, as the numbers stated above clearly demonstrate. Nebraska’s State Colleges serve a high proportion of first generation college students with high academic and financial need, yet they receive the least public support per student of any of the public institutions.