Andrew Gillen writes for the Martin Center about the argument that states have in recent years been “disinvesting” in higher education.

“Two days. Two reports citing the same data. Two different conclusions.” That is how Rick Seltzer described the near-simultaneous release of two studies looking at state funding in Inside Higher Ed.

The first study was written by myself for the Texas Public Policy Foundation and found that state disinvestment is a myth. The second study, by Michael Mitchell, Michael Leachman, and Matt Saenz for the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, found that on average, the states have been disinvesting in higher education.

Both studies relied on the same data set (SHEF), put out by the State Higher Education Executive Officers Association. Adding to the confusion was that SHEEO was able to replicate my figures, but disagreed with my conclusions—while being unable to replicate CBPP’s numbers, but agreeing with their conclusions based on their own analysis.

So to sum up, three sets of analysts looked at the same data and had three different interpretations.

What’s going on?

The most obvious difference between the three analyses is different time frames. …

… Conclusions based on more data are generally more reliable. CBPP concluded there was state disinvestment because from 2008 to 2018, states cut funding by $1,220 per student, which, under its methodology is true. Also true, using that same methodology, is that from 2012 to 2018 state funding increased by $1,126 per student, and that from 1980 to 2018, state funding increased by $4 per student.

Are we to conclude from this that state disinvestment isn’t happening at all (the $4 increase from 1980 to 2018) or even that we are currently in a trend of state reinvestment (the $1,126 increase since 2012)?

The problem is that any arbitrary (and/or cherry-picked) start and end date can lead to unreliable conclusions.