Public colleges and universities depend heavily on state appropriations and legislatures must decide how much to fund higher education. This study applies punctuated equilibrium theory to characterize the distribution of annual changes in higher education appropriations and defines the threshold for a dramatic budget cut. Using data for the 50 states from years 1980 to 2009, this study investigates the relationship between such unique policy events and state characteristics using a Cox proportional hazards model. Results show that economic and political conditions are most predicative of dramatic budget cuts. High unemployment rates increase the probability of cuts while rapid increases in tax revenue and wider income inequality are protective against cuts. Unified Republican and unified Democratic governments are both more likely to cut spending compared to a divided government. Sensitivity analyses of state characteristics associated with small budget cuts demonstrates that large cuts are indeed unique events catalyzed by different conditions.