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Some analysts believe colleges may look toward growing endowment funds when finances are tight, but such an approach could threaten the public standing of many public universities, Ms. Delaney said.

“The practice of growing endowments makes public institutions look more like private institutions,” she said. “They’ll look to auxiliary enterprises, making housing self-supporting [and] athletics self-supporting.”

College and university endowments increased by an average of 11.7 percent in fiscal year 2014, according to a study released earlier this summer by the National Association of College and University Business Officers and the Commonfund Institute, a dramatic turnaround from an average loss of 0.3 percent in fiscal year 2012. Endowments make up, on average, 8.8 percent of university operating revenues.

Of the 20 universities with the largest endowments, only five are public institutions. Harvard tops the list with an endowment of $32.3 billion. Yale, the University of Texas System, Stanford and Princeton round out the top five. The public institutions among the list included the University of Texas System, Texas A&M, the University of Michigan, the University of California and the University of Virginia.

And tuition discounting is on the rise for a number of public colleges at a time when nearly 25 percent of regional public universities have seen a decline in tuition revenue.

“Tuition discounting is more common in private, nonprofit institutions but is becoming more common in four-year, public universities,” Ms. Delaney said.

Mr. Mortenson, the Pell Institute analyst, said that what’s happening now is “only the tip of the iceberg in terms of whether our public universities are going to remain public.”

While “the state may own the land and the buildings,” endowments are responsible for producing critical revenue, he said.

Reports from Moody's and the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities both note that these financial troubles heightened after the Great Recession, and experts are unclear of how long it will take for a new funding model to emerge.

“I don’t see a period of recovery,” Mr. Mortenson said. “There’s no prospect that I can see for restoring state funding to public higher education.”