From the President: The Last Chance

By Cary Nelson

Incremental state funding of public higher education is over. The annual legislative battle for a percentage increase in higher education budgets is now a losing proposition. That is one cold lesson of the last two years. The era of the state funding budget cycle for higher education has, for all practical purposes, come to an end. Public funding is being inexorably replaced by incremental cost shifting from states to students, with tuition revenue and student debt replacing tax dollars. And that pattern comes on the heels of increased reliance at some institutions on corporate grants and contract funds that can limit faculty freedom in conducting and disseminating research.

I believe we will never recover the public funding we might have gained over the last three years in a healthy economy. If funding is increased and cuts are reversed, we could find ourselves at 2007 levels years later, perhaps in 2017, having permanently lost ground. Only a complete restructuring of the financial model and a redefinition of the social purpose of public higher education will suffice. Higher education must be reconceived as a public good and a human right. It must be understood as a key component of the social contract that holds a democracy together and makes it credible. It helps produce a citizenry prepared to participate in public life and public debate in an informed and articulate way, capable of evaluating legislative proposals and political rhetoric, aware of the dynamic relationship between historical precedents and current struggles. Public higher education thus must be altogether publicly funded. The battle must now be over fundamentals, not crumbs.

If you teach or study at a private institution, you may think this doesn’t matter. But if you take citizenship seriously, then it matters to all Americans, including all of us in the higher education community.

In the last two years we’ve seen tenured faculty members furloughed and faculty members serving on contingent appointments dismissed. Tuition is increasing to the point where undergraduates are dropping out of school or taking on crushing debt. And colleges and universities in some states are drastically cutting back on admissions.

It is obvious that this is not the time to ask the state legislature to block a budget cut or plead for a tiny increase. That approach has been failing for years, as reliance on state funding has slowly declined. States cut higher education budgets because they can, because educational institutions have other ways of filling funding gaps. As education professor Jennifer Delaney of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign puts it, “During an economic downturn, states generally don’t increase rent for prisoners.” Maybe the current crisis in higher education presents an opportunity for a more dramatic wake-up call. Maybe now is the time to issue a more fundamental challenge to citizens and legislators alike. Perhaps, as we slide toward the point when public higher education is at risk of being fully privatized, we should ask everyone what the nation’s commitment to public higher education should be.

Now, when we could have everyone’s attention, let’s promote a basic principle: public higher education should be free. We need an educated citizenry to participate in public debates in an informed way. We need to fund public higher education at a level that makes it accessible to all qualified high school graduates. We need to reform a system that too often extends poor-quality education to the poor and high-quality education only to those whose families can afford it.

The cost would be perhaps $60 billion a year, less than we have invested in corporate bailouts, far less than the federal government spends on unnecessary weapons systems. The struggle to shift our priorities will be neither brief nor easy. Those who have sought for years to decrease access to higher education will certainly attack this proposal or mock it. Nonetheless, it is time for an unambiguous, principled national campaign for free public higher education.