The chart below depicts the change in real state appropriations (per full-time equivalent enrollment) and the change in real public tuition and fees, with both indexed to 1980-81 levels. In academic year 1980-81, real state appropriations adjusted by public full-time equivalent enrollments were around $8600, nationally. In academic year 2011-12, however, real state appropriations were $6700 per student ($6600 per student, if one excludes federal stimulus funds), according to data compiled by the College Board. This equates roughly to a 23% decline in real per student appropriations over a three decade period, though, as can be seen from the chart below, looking at just the endpoints masks the fluctuations in the appropriations data during that period. Per student appropriations rose in real terms during the periods 1982-83 to 1986-87, 1992-93 to 1999-2000, and 2003-04 to 2007-08 but fell in real terms during periods 1988-89 to 1992-93, 2000-01 to 2003-04 and (a period which continues to the present) 2007-08 to 2011-12. It is also interesting to note that over this period, the absolute maximum for per student appropriations occurred in the late 1980s and subsequent peaks have always been lower in real terms. Prior to the recent financial crisis, though, in 2007-08, real per student appropriations were actually slightly above 1980-81 levels (by only 4% or so).
In contrast to the rather large and significant fluctuations in per student appropriations, over this same 31 year period, real tuition and fees has continued in an inexorable upward trajectory. Compared to inflation-adjusted public tuition and fees in 1980-81, public tuition and fees in academic year 2011-12 were 375% higher. While these data do suggest that there may be something of an inverse relationship between appropriations and tuition (for example, the years which saw upward turns in the rate of tuition increases were generally years in which real appropriations per student were declining or not rising), overall perhaps the best description of the data is something along the lines of “sometimes state appropriations go up and sometimes they go down, but tuition always goes up.”