Next Steps in the Fight for Public Higher Education

On January 3, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced a plan to make New York State and City colleges tuition-free for all students whose families earn less than $125,000 per year. Cuomo made the announcement while standing alongside Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, who had made free college tuition and reduced student debt a key part of his presidential campaign. Sanders later tweeted that “If New York makes public colleges and universities tuition-free, mark my words, state after state will follow.”

Getting a quality education has long been seen as a key factor in attaining a good job and middle-class lifestyle, but two trends have been severely undermining this road to the “American Dream.” One is the limited opportunity in the labor market, which has contributed to the overall increase in inequality. The second is the steady erosion of public higher education.

Publicly funded higher education serves a variety of functions, not all of which are readily recognized. First, it provides an accessible college education to many young people from families of modest income. Often these are the children of recent immigrants, or simply the children of working-class and increasingly downwardly mobile middle-class parents trying to better themselves and increase their chances of success.

A second function pertains to the role that education plays generally in society, which is to ensure an educated citizenry — one that has been exposed to multiple viewpoints, understands some of the key lessons of history, grasps the scientific method and the philosophy of logic, and has some understanding of how public policy is determined and the impact that it has. In short, higher education is fundamental to the existence and continuation of democratic society. As such, it can act as a countervailing force against elite control of government and other important social institutions.

Third, public colleges are often research institutions. The research they conduct expands our knowledge of subjects, such as agriculture, pharmaceuticals and the environment, to name a few. It helps us understand the impact of government policy on employment, income, health care and other important issues. The research function of public higher education can help fill important gaps in what we know about how our collective actions impact the health and well-being of our population and the planet on which we live. Without the research done by public institutions in the public interest, insulated from the profit motive, society would lose a counterbalance to the research done by self-interested corporations.

Fourth, public higher education adds greatly to the number of Americans able to attend college, thereby helping to identify and develop the talent pool of the nation. Educating the engineers, architects, doctors, nurses, urban planners, journalists, policy analysts, etc., helps the economy grow in new and healthier ways, makes the country stronger and improves the quality of life for over 300 million people and for future generations.

Austerity Means Accumulation by Dispossession

Over the past three decades, funding for public higher education has fallen prey to the same forces that have promoted overall inequality. The rich have gotten richer, but government has been starved for revenue, and the problem of debt is used to justify cutbacks in all sorts of spending that could promote the public good. Private-public partnerships have been promoted as the solution to many problems. In education, this means a sharp rise in for-profit colleges, which more than tripled their enrollment from 1998 to 2008. Enrollment peaked at nearly 3.2 million before dropping after widespread criticism and a major congressional investigation.

For-profit colleges may be enrolling large numbers of students, but they have an abysmal record of graduating them. They are immensely successful in tapping federal government sources for funds while piling up huge debt on their students. Any rational assessment would conclude that though they make money, with very few exceptions, they are a failed social enterprise.

For-profits are financed almost entirely by taxpayers to the tune of over $30 billion a year. They are expensive, roughly twice the tuition as four-year public universities and five times as much as community colleges. Nearly all students attending for-profits borrow to pay tuition. According to Suzanne Mettler, author of Degrees of Inequality, the average debt is over $32,000 and students at for-profits are the most likely to default on their loans. Overall, 50 million Americans hold a student loan (this is almost as many people as covered by Medicare). Student loan debt, at over $1.3 trillion, is now greater than total credit card debt.

The situation parallels mortgage industry practices that led to the financial collapse in 2007. In the lead up, mortgage companies concentrated on expanding the sheer numbers of mortgages with little regard for the homebuyers’ ability to pay. For-profits aim to enroll as many students as possible, with little regard to ability to complete the degree or pay back the loans. Nearly one in four students at these colleges default on their loans within three years. The colleges have been paid, but the students still have the debt. This affects and disempowers faculty as well, since many new faculty are also struggling to pay off student loans. Student loan debt is an egregious imposition of debt burden on our young people. It’s a predatory government-sponsored debt that students cannot discharge through bankruptcy, and that places them at an enormous disadvantage as they move into life after college. A democratic society should be outraged at this burdening of our young people.

While for-profits were growing, state funding for colleges dropped dramatically. From 1990 to 2010, funding decreased by 26 percent in real terms. The consequences have been higher tuition (average tuition rose roughly 260 percent from 1980 to 2015), reduced net pay for full-time faculty and a much greater reliance on adjunct faculty and online courses (which are cheaper to deliver but of questionable value).

Rapidly rising tuition and growing student debt are putting young Americans in an untenable position. Tuition increases are directly related to austerity programs, but also to inflated administration and support service costs on college campuses. They are not due to rising faculty salaries. In fact, contingent, part-time faculty labor has increased dramatically. Seventy percent of instructional staff appointments in higher education are non-tenure track. This lessens the power of faculty, as contingent faculty members are hired “at will” and fear for their jobs. As Nicole M. Aschoff writes:

Just like on the tiered assembly line, these instructors perform essentially the same role as tenured faculty but get paid peanuts. They have no job security and often no health insurance. They cobble together classes, often at multiple universities, to make poverty wages in the hopes of one day landing a tenure-track gig.

But full-time tenured faculty are also being squeezed, experiencing hostile salary and wage negotiations, and in some states, salary cuts through mandated contributions to health care benefits. Faculty salaries are stagnant, even as administrations become increasingly bloated. Fewer full-time faculty members also means greater numbers of students to advise, more committee work and other duties that fall on fewer faculty. Faculty must fight back, not solely for their own jobs, but for public higher education in general.

Recent strikes in Pennsylvania’s state college system and at Long Island University are encouraging signs, but political activists and young people, in particular, must increase the pressure for expanded access to a quality education and an end to state-supported debt treadmills that take money from lower-income students and taxpayers and reward irresponsible investing.

The Great Reversal

After World War II, college enrollment expanded dramatically in the US. The G.I. Bill made aid available to veterans and government spending on higher education increased, especially at the state level. In the 1960s, the baby boom and the Vietnam War combined to create enormous demand (full-time college students were exempt from the military draft), and Pell Grants were developed as an important form of financial aid. As a result, the US became the world leader in graduation rates. In 1940, just one in 20 Americans held a college degree; by 1977, this had risen to one in four. However, as Mettler points out in Degrees of Inequality, since 1980, 10 countries have surpassed the US in the percent of population with four-year degrees. Not surprisingly, there has been a corresponding decrease in social mobility. One study of 10 nations found that in the United States, quality of life was determined by parents’ level of education more so than in the other countries. The US has the lowest level of intergenerational mobility and the most unequal opportunity for intergenerational advancement.

Corporatization of Education

Colleges increasingly take the form of business enterprises with highly paid upper-level executives (management) and faculty (workers) whose salaries are suppressed. Costs are cut by replacing full-time professors with poorly paid adjuncts; and a de-skilling of the profession occurs aided by the expansion of publisher-created learning materials, including pre-packaged content for online courses. In the business model of higher education, students are viewed as customers and education becomes a form of job training.

Some of these trends pose a threat to liberal arts in particular, which is viewed as less practical and potentially more radical. These issues include the frighteningly close corporate ties that universities have forged with transnational corporations. Bain and Co., for example, (Mitt Romney’s company) designed an educational plan for the University of North Texas in Dallas, recommending a “narrow set of career-oriented majors, large teaching loads for faculty members and more hybrid (mixed online and in-person instruction) courses.” Another example is the Koch brothers’ pledge of $1.5 million to Florida State University (FSU) in exchange for “screen and sign off” rights on the hiring of economics faculty. And, until student and faculty protests derailed this, FSU had renamed a football stadium after a for-profit prison corporation that had been cited for numerous human rights abuses. This kind of corporate influence over higher education is an enormous problem and illustrates how cutting public funding makes colleges more vulnerable to predatory philanthropy.

Buying Ideological Compliance

As funding for public higher education decreased, conservatives donated more to higher education overall with the clear purpose of influencing the content. John M. Olin, a conservative millionaire industrialist, contributed hundreds of millions of dollars to conservative causes through his foundation. Olin oriented his “philanthropy” toward colleges and universities after the student protests of the late 1960s. In her book Dark Money, author Jane Mayer documents how the Olin Foundation funded professors at leading colleges all over the country, and supported 11 separate programs at Harvard. Elsewhere, the foundation created a “new” approach called “Law and Economics,” (essentially a repackaging of libertarianism) and underwrote 83 percent of the costs for all Law and Economics programs in American law schools in the late 1980s. It even paid students to takes classes in the subject.

Likewise, the Bradley Foundation paid for hundreds of graduate and postgraduate fellowships. And, according to Mayer, the foundation supported “conservative beachheads in thirty-five different elite colleges and universities including Harvard, Princeton, and Stanford.” The Koch brothers, too, used money to promote ideology in the nation’s colleges. Their foundations established the influential Mercatus Center at George Mason University to promote neoliberal market-oriented ideas. One researcher described it as a “lobbying group disguised as a disinterested academic program.”

Reframing the Issue

For the good of the nation as a whole, we must reverse the decades-old trend of dwindling funding for public higher education and the displacement of the public-good function of higher education by investor interests. Doing so means fighting against a number of widespread misconceptions. Among these are:

Misconception #1: We can’t afford it. The austerity mindset argues that services, such as higher education, must be cut because there simply isn’t the money for it. But whether measured by productivity per worker or GDP per capita, the US economy is twice as productive as it was 40 years ago when public education was at its peak. We are not broke, but as a nation, we’ve seen the billionaire class enrich itself while the wages of working-class Americans fall or stagnate, forcing them to adapt by having more family or household members take on jobs, or by borrowing.

Misconception #2: Education is an expense. Advocates should respond that it is an investment. There are many ways, both on the micro and macro levels, that spending on education pays off down the road. Not investing in education undermines all the gains that have come before.

Misconception #3: Private-sector solutions work best. While there are many fine private colleges and universities, they are simply too expensive and address only a small portion of the need. And the many for-profit, largely online, colleges that have sprung up over the past two decades are, overall, more than a failure. They are a corrosive influence that worsens the problem.

Make College Great Again?

Bernie Sanders’ campaign helped put the issue of student debt and the possibility of free college tuition into the public debate. Hillary Clinton responded by proposing that by 2021, families with income up to $125,000 pay no tuition at in-state four-year public colleges and universities, and that all community colleges be tuition-free. The degeneration of the Trump/Clinton contest pushed these and other worthy ideas off the table.

Donald Trump, the “founder” of Trump University (a putative real estate trade school charged with many fraudulent practices), won the presidency. What does this mean for public higher education? Stock prices of for-profit education companies surged the morning after Election Day and they continue to outperform the overall market. Investors no doubt like their chances with Trump as president, and public higher education has been dealt another setback, but the reversal of several decades of erosion was never going to be easy or quick. Bernie Sanders is right, the hard work of advocacy and rehabilitation should be focused on the state level, but the revitalization of public higher education also means fighting greater deregulation and tax breaks for the wealthy at the national level.

The struggle for public higher education boils down to a simple question: Will education policy be made by the highest bidder, or will it be made in the collective interest of the nation?