When College Was A Public Good!

Dear Commons Community,

Scott Carlson, a senior writer for The Chronicle of Higher Education, had an essay in yesterday’s edition positing that the defunding of public higher education can be tied in part to the rise in the diversity of students attending our state colleges and universities.  Here is an excerpt:

“In looking for connections between diversity and the defunding of higher education, many see only hazy correlations. But emerging studies suggest some bias. Last year Nicholas Hillman, an associate professor of educational leadership and policy analysis at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, analyzed the balance between state appropriations and tuition revenue at more than 450 public colleges. Those that served primarily white students got more of their money from the state, while the colleges that served minority students relied more on tuition. He points to a striking, if lopsided, comparison between the University of Tennessee at Knoxville and Tennessee State University, a historically black institution. State funding per undergraduate at Knoxville, where 7 percent of students are black, is $19,500; at Tennessee State, where 71 percent of students are black, that figure is $5,600.

In another study released last year, two economists — Eric J. Brunner of the University of Connecticut and Erik B. Johnson of the University of Richmond — looked at voting patterns in community-college bond referenda in California. Older white voters were less supportive of college funding than were younger voters, the study showed, and if they lived in areas with a high Hispanic population, they were significantly less supportive.  

In many ways, we live in Reagan’s world, with attitudes he shaped about the role of government. What might formerly have been considered a leg up often gets called an entitlement or a handout. Public higher education has undergone a financial and conceptual shift: Once an investment covered mostly by the state to produce a work force and an informed citizenry, today it is more commonly shouldered by individuals and families, and described as a private benefit, a means to a credential and a job.   

It’s not a conspiracy, but a neoliberal ideology, says Michael Fabricant, a professor of social work at the City University of New York Graduate Center and author, with Stephen Brier, of a new book about the disinvestment in public education, Austerity Blues: Fighting for the Soul of Public Higher Education (Johns Hopkins University Press).

 “Austerity is being imposed not just on higher education, but across public services,” he says. To what extent that randomly or deliberately coincides with rising national diversity is a tricky question. What’s clearer is the effect of stagnating social mobility. “In the absence of the necessary resources for these universities to either provide an affordable education on the one hand or a quality education on the other,” he says, “a certain population is now being defined as disposable.”

Not only activists have noticed. In 1982, Elizabeth Dole, serving as chair of a task force on equal rights for women, wrote a memo to the White House staff secretary, warning that cuts in student aid would lead to “a significant outcry of racism.” She explained that the African-American community “looks to Pell Grants as one of their primary vehicles for upward mobility.”

“People in the administration were aware of what the potential fallout would be from shifting from grants to loans,” says Mr. Fergus, of Ohio State. What they didn’t count on was the stagnation of wages for most Americans and the escalating cost of college, which have ensnared whites, too. “I just don’t think they imagined that middle-class whites would ever need aid.”

This is an interesting take on this issue and one that makes some sense.  However, whether it is a conspiracy or ideology is difficult to say. It is likely a bit of both.


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