Although higher education is the only investment that government makes that actually pays back (with an annual return of 15-20% on investment), our governments – especially state governments, for that's where bulk of operating assistance to colleges and universities comes from – haven't been making much of those investments.
During the past 25 years, state funding per student in constant dollars – the blue bars on this chart – has risen and fallen, pretty much in line with state economic conditions, but over time has basically been flat and slightly declining. Total state expenditures have increased in constant dollars during this time, since enrollments have risen – the purple line.
Per student tuitions have doubled, though, after adjusting for inflation – the top gray-green bars.
Institutions have responded by saying our elected policy makers simply need to understand the importance of higher education and provide adequate funding.
These arguments have been going back and forth for at least 40 years, but things haven't changed: Funding continues to be inadequate and campuses continue to do what they've always done.