Education and the Austerity Reform Agenda

By Deondra Rose

Austerity Blues: Fighting for the Soul of Public Higher Education by Michael Fabricant and Stephen Brier. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2016.

Austerity Blues: Fighting for the Soul of Public Higher Education
by Michael Fabricant and Stephen Brier
Hardcover

Powells.com

Michael Fabricant and Stephen Brier’s Austerity Blues makes for poignant reading at a political moment characterized by bold efforts to trim the federal government’s responsibility and to shift control over public goods like higher education to the private sector. Last spring, President Donald Trump and US Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos advocated a budget proposal that aimed to slash $10.6 billion in federal education spending. Given this administration’s preference for supporting private school vouchers for K–12 education over federally subsidized student loans and work-study programs, it seems likely that colleges and universities will be expected to shoulder an increasingly substantial proportion of the burden of reduced support. Fabricant and Brier’s exploration of the effects that such declining investment in higher education has on equal opportunity—and, by extension, democratic citizenship—will appeal to a broad range of scholars and policy makers as well as to any citizen interested in the health of American democracy.

Austerity Blues builds upon Fabricant’s and Brier’s distinguished records of applying historical analysis and case study to social policy inquiry. The authors cast a spotlight on policy makers’ steadfast willingness to invoke an ethos of self-denial when it comes to providing support for public goods that are crucial to the well-being of the nation’s most marginalized citizens. Higher education has a long record of promoting socioeconomic mobility and providing access to the knowledge, skills, and inclinations that are building blocks of democratic citizenship. The authors’ careful consideration of the effects of ever-intensifying calls for a scaling back of investment in the public sphere thus has important implications not only for the soul of public higher education—which they note in the book’s subtitle—but also for the soul of our democracy.

At the outset, the authors conceptualize the “austerity reform agenda” as “the  crisis of funding [that] is linked directly to the need to create an ever-leaner, more efficient service sector that will be realized through the introduction of new technologies, programming, and market principles.” In higher education, this agenda has been advanced through declining federal student aid in the face of rising tuition costs, the increasing prevalence of for-profit colleges and universities, the “adjunctification” of college faculties, the decline of adequate remedial academic support for needy students, and increasing reliance on technology to conduct the inherently social work of teaching. Using case studies of the City University of New York and the State University of New York systems and the California system of public higher education, they illustrate how this new era of disinvestment threatens to dismantle higher education’s role as a bastion of equal opportunity in the United States. Disinvestment in public higher education in these relatively progressive states surely represents the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the decline of government support for public higher education, and the reader is left wishing that this rich analysis extended to less progressive states. Nevertheless, Fabricant and Brier succeed in sharpening our focus on the politics of austerity and helping “develop a more comprehensive understanding of what is changing and what is at stake.”

Even with its limited emphasis on cases drawn from New York and California, Fabricant and Brier’s analysis is striking for its theoretical comprehensiveness. Their examination of how disinvestment, deregulation, and related forces, operating in tandem, have mounted a powerful assault against what they term “emancipatory education” represents perhaps their most important contribution to higher education scholarship. By carefully demonstrating how each of these trends affects the others, they make a compelling case that our national obsession with trimming government responsibility has crucial ramifications for higher education’s ability to remain a reliable mechanism for promoting equal opportunity and access to full citizenship.

In addition to helping us achieve a greater understanding of the connection between investment in public higher education and the health of our democracy, the authors’ historical analysis offers a powerful example of how crucial context is for our capacity to understand contemporary political issues. Their account of the history of state involvement in public higher education—from the GI Bill to the growth of public financing of for-profit colleges—provides valuable insights even for those who are well versed in the study of US higher education. But while Fabricant and Brier offer a deft analysis of the historical development of austerity policies in higher education, they have surprisingly little to say about the equally crucial development of austerity politics. Arguably, the rise of austerity policy reflects the extent to which the politics of crisis—or perceived crisis—shapes our national priorities. As was the case with the federal government’s initial foray into need-based student aid, the National Defense Education Act during the Cold War era, crisis has served as a powerful motivator for lawmakers when it comes to providing support for higher education. While the specter of defeat at the hands of the Soviet Union promoted increased investment in higher education during the midtwentieth century, contemporary crises often center on the need to trim the federal budget or to devote government dollars to (supposedly) more pressing purposes, like tax cuts or national defense.

Austerity Blues leaves readers wanting to know more about the forces that have facilitated this trend. I suspect that federal disinvestment in higher education is rooted in critical political forces, such as our contemporary preoccupation with false choices (for example, the perceived necessity of deciding whether we can afford to invest precious dollars in social welfare spending or in national defense spending). It seems similarly plausible that disinvestment is rooted in the social construction of government worthiness: just as low-income citizens are frequently cast as the “undeserving poor” who do not merit public support, the government has been indelibly characterized as an inefficient, unreliable, and similarly undeserving steward of our national resources. Fabricant and Brier’s analysis raises important questions about the kinds of political change that will be necessary to reverse the austerity policies that they describe and what it will take to realize those changes. As such, this book establishes a powerful agenda for future research.

It offers a similarly powerful agenda for lawmakers. A central takeaway from this book is that the decision to reject policies like free tuition, GI Bill–style federal financial aid, and remedial programming to bridge academic disparity created by disparities in K–12 education would place in peril our long-standing expectations for higher education. Without robust support for these types of policies, we cannot expect higher education to do the critical work of providing a reliable mechanism for upward mobility.

Austerity Blues also offers a compelling contribution to the discourse surrounding our nation’s current crisis of identity—encouraging crucial questions about who we are and what we will prioritize. As Fabricant and Brier make clear, the decisions that we make regarding investment in public higher education and other broadreaching social policies will prove crucial to the life chances of our most marginalized citizens. And, as President Trump, Secretary of Education DeVos, and others make important decisions regarding the public role in supporting higher educational opportunity, it is clear that these choices will have direct effects on the health of our vulnerable democracy.

Deondra Rose is assistant professor of public policy and political science at Duke University. Her research focuses on the feedback effects of landmark higher education policies on the American political landscape. She is the author of the forthcoming book Citizens by Degree: Higher Education Policy and the Changing Gender Dynamics of American Citizenship. Her email address is deondra.rose@ duke.edu.

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