11 states spend more on prisons than on higher education

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NEW YORK — Lawmakers in 11 states are spending more on prisons and jails than their public colleges.

That’s the bottom line of a new report from the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

The states are Michigan, Oregon, Arizona, Vermont, Colorado, Pennsylvania, New Hampshire, Delaware, Rhode Island, Massachusetts and Connecticut.

States have been slashing funding for higher education over the past decade, and cuts got deeper during the Great Recession. State budgets for public universities have been cut about 20% since 2008, according to the report.

Since 1986, funding for prisons has spiked 141%.

And spending on things like Medicaid and pension contributions keeps growing. Politicians find it nearly impossible to make cuts to those programs.

State funding isn’t the only source of revenue for public universities, but it still accounts for about half of a typical school’s budget. The other half comes from the federal government and tuition and fees.

In California, though, state funding only covers about 9% of the budget at the University of California. In 2001, it covered 23%.

Experts say the cuts in state funding are partly to blame for the rise in tuition at public schools. The sticker price at state schools has risen 28% since 2008.

Earlier this week, the Obama administration proposed shifting some of the money spent on prisons and jails to education. By locking up fewer people who get arrested for nonviolent crimes, it could save more than $15 billion a year that could be redirected to students and teachers, said Education Secretary Arne Duncan.

“It’s about setting a different direction as a society, a different priority — one that says we believe in great teaching early in our kids’ lives, rather than courts, jails and prisons later,” he said.

But the Department of Education doesn’t have the authority to implement that kind of change. The decision ultimately falls to the states.

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