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It Is Time to Invest in Colleges and Universities

Reinventing the US system of higher education.
By Randi Weingarten

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The Higher Education Act of 1965 was a pivotal moment for the American academy, increasing federal funding for American colleges and universities that supported teaching and research and creating a program of federal scholarships, grants, and loans that help Americans finance a college education. The subsequent years saw the doors of American higher education thrown open to millions—especially racial minorities and women—who had been previously unable to afford college and ushered in a renaissance within academic fields as these new voices quickly made themselves known through scholarship and teaching.
 
If that moment more than half a century ago reflected our nation at its most optimistic, federal higher education policy today reflects the corrosiveness of the past decade. Instead of investing in a flourishing and respected community of scholars, our colleges and universities shamelessly balance their budgets on the back of a faculty corps that overwhelmingly lacks job security and decent pay, prerequisites for the innovation required to be at the forefront of scholarship. The promises to a previous generation of federal financial aid—bringing social, cultural, civic, and economic benefits to students and their communities—have been replaced by the student debt that is shackling more than 45 million Americans.

The fact remains that higher education, and access to it, is indispensable for moving our nation beyond the grim circumstances in which we find ourselves, and we must commit ourselves to building it back better if we are to move forward. It’s a task that harks back to the despair our nation faced in the Great Depression, coupled with the optimism and hope for the future of the Great Society. It’s a task that will require a historic investment in our colleges and universities—a New Deal for Higher Education.

It has now been more than fifty-five years since President Lyndon Johnson signed the Higher Education Act into law. In hindsight, it appears that as soon as the bill was signed, efforts were underway to roll back its gains. We’ve seen public support decline precipitously as states balanced their budgets by shortchanging higher education institutions when times were rough, never restoring prior funding levels when good times returned and instead passing the cost on to students. The Pell Grant, which once allowed lower-income citizens access to the economic mobility that comes with a college education, has failed to keep up with inflation, while student loans have ballooned, turning dreams of a better life into the nightmare of unending debt—a burden that falls especially hard on women and people of color. Tens of thousands of students who pursued an advanced degree in the hopes of creating knowledge and sharing their passion with future generations have found themselves struggling to cobble together a living from term to term as the tenured professor has been replaced by the long-term adjunct.

The erosion of the financial structures that have supported American higher education has proceeded in step with increasing partisan attacks on these same structures. Take the disrespect inherent in the assault on Dr. Jill Biden for having the temerity to insist on being addressed with a title she earned, criticisms that are laced not only with misogyny but with contempt for public institutions of higher education and community colleges. Critics decry the value of higher education, declaring that the value of a college degree lies primarily in the employability of its holder, even as they decimate funding for the community colleges that provide career and technical education. As fewer faculty members have protections for their exercise of academic freedom that tenure confers, professors must choose between challenging students on controversial topics and avoiding becoming the victims of political witch hunts. At a time when the American academy is more diverse than it has ever been, when scholars of color, women, and LGBTQA thinkers are helping reshape our systems of knowledge in ways that have profound and positive practical benefits, the academic programs they have founded and the disciplines they have influenced are ridiculed, attacked, and, at some institutions, extinguished. Just as we are facing global challenges that will reshape our world—a pandemic, climate change, a reckoning with racism, and democratic backsliding—the colleges and universities to which we’ve looked for help in finding solutions and training the people to implement them are being starved and their faculties muzzled. And at the highest levels of our government during the four years of the Trump administration, we have seen the work of academic experts on immigration, climate change, emerging diseases, American history, and countless other areas of concern frozen out of policy making around issues critical to our collective security and prosperity.

The burden of these transformations in higher education is borne by members of the higher education workforce, whether they work as adjuncts barely above the poverty line, as teaching assistants for large lecture courses, as academic advisers, or as “visiting” professors who have been teaching the same courses for years. Even the gold-standard protections that tenure confers do not prevent the circumscription of professional autonomy as academic senates are increasingly relegated to providing rubber stamps for administrative decisions. But the impact ripples out from there.

If our colleges and universities are going to be the engines for an economic and civic revival once the COVID-19 pandemic ends, we need to do everything possible now to ensure that they have the resources for the job. Congress and President Biden have taken aggressive action with comprehensive pandemic stimulus legislation that includes funding for higher education. But as our friends at the Roosevelt Institute point out, it’s not enough that Congress appropriate money. It must direct those funds to where they are most needed. If higher education is going to be able to provide the research and education necessary for our nation to prosper again, funds must be appropriated to protect the jobs of the people who will be back in the labs, the classrooms, and the campus offices that support students. These dollars can’t be parceled out as loans that will burden students and their families for decades—they must go to states with strings attached, and they must be targeted at lowering the net price of attendance so that more students, especially students of color, lower-income students, and nontraditional students, can stay enrolled and graduate without debt at a time when millions of Americans are out of work. These funds should flow to the public colleges and universities that enroll most students, giving states an incentive to maintain and expand their own appropriations for higher education.

We also have an opportunity to redress the historic inequalities wrought by fifty years of defunding higher education while providing a direct stimulus to the economy by canceling student debt. The Department of Education currently has the authority to wipe out student debt with the stroke of a pen, just as the department has the authority to (thankfully!) suspend principal and interest payments for most federal loan borrowers through the end of September 2021. Forgiving up to $50,000 of an individual’s student debt could eliminate debt for millions of borrowers, give millions more much-needed hope and breathing room, reduce or eradicate the racial disparities in the burden of student debt, and provide stimulus to a pandemic-ravaged economy.

Getting our system of higher education through the current crisis is necessary, but it is insufficient if we are to address the challenges that are ahead of us. New infectious diseases will continue to emerge. We still have much work to do to mitigate the challenges caused by the global climate crisis. We face daunting shortages of professional workers, including teachers and health-care workers. Our civic and democratic institutions are increasingly lost in a blizzard of misinformation. It is not enough that our colleges and universities survive this crisis. Our leaders must act to strengthen them so that we can rely upon them through times both good and bad in the future. We can do this by reimagining a Higher Education Act that surpasses the boldness of the one passed in 1965, a new act that builds prosperity from the bottom up, fosters knowledge and innovation, advances social and economic justice, and strengthens our democracy and civil society.

The task of reinventing an American system of higher education that meets the needs of a twenty-first-century population with global challenges is a historic effort, one that will require the vision and resources of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal, but one that will also undo the bigotries and prejudices that excluded millions of Americans from the New Deal’s promises. That task begins with us. It will require us as higher education unionists to mobilize our colleagues and as educators to inform and engage our students. It will require us to find common ground with administrators and legislators about a shared vision for higher education. We will need to reach out to our allies—the civic organizations that rely on our research, the professionals whom we train for their careers, and the businesses that rely directly or indirectly on higher education to survive—to create the momentum necessary for such a transformative effort. If higher education is to remain a vehicle for individual empowerment and social improvement, we don’t have a moment to lose.

Randi Weingarten is president of the American federation of Teachers.

Comments

Student debt, although a multifaceted issue, should not be wiped away "with the stroke of a pen." The unfairness to the millions of borrows who sacrificed, and did without, to pay their debt as per their responsibility is substantial. Additionally, millions of Americans who could not afford, or chose not to attend college would be required to assume others' responsibilities, which is also extremely unfair; especially if they can barely afford it themselves.

Yes, student debt should be restructured so that it is very low interest, if any, and should be income-based. Additionally, the federal government should not only increase the amount of Pell Grant but lower the income restrictions so that even middle-class students would receive some benefit, not only helping them later on but also helping their parents who suffer under thousands of dollars in Parent Plus loans.

Additionally, what kind of message would cancelling student debt send to Americans? Responsibility comes with consequences and this sets a dangerous precedent that government will be there to bail out one's fiscal irresponsibility or poor decisions.

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