Behind the finger pointing, higher education funding is a discourse and a practice that is created by thousands of interactions among political, business, and educational leaders every year, with contributions from the peanut gallery comprised of students, staff, faculty, and the general public. It is a collaborative product. The combination of flat or falling funding and fee hikes have with rare exceptions been annual staples of the budget process for twenty years. They are a co-creation of states and higher education, and now follow each other as the night the day. The result was nicely summarized in an epitaph from Reclaim UC – each defeat becomes the point of departure for the next one.
The repetition of the annual ritual raises an obvious question: why should anyone care this year more than they did last year, or in 2009, or in 2004? Each year the public hears the same expressions of disppointment and resignation from the universities and the same claims of more or less reluctant necessity from both political parties in Sacramento. Each year hundreds of thousands of students start college in California and hundreds of thousands graduate, and life goes on.
One major change is the end of even the appearance of a balance of power between the pro-cuts and the pro-education sides. The necessity argument now gets daily steroid injections from born-again austerity fundamentalist Jerry Brown, who is Hooverizing the state economy with permanent cuts in every public program designed to preserve or improve the state’s human capital: from K-12 to Cal State to Cal WORKS, “The Poor Just Got Poorer”, and the phrase would be a good candidate for a new California state anthem. But there have been no matching steroid injections from the other side.
No legislator thinks they might be voted out of office for excessive cuts to higher education. No one in a position to make a credible threat is willing to make one. Progressives and educators have no full-time political party, and no political whip equivalent of the Club for Growth, which regularly threatens members of its own party around its core issues, these days regarding their temptation to raise the debt ceiling.
Higher education exerts no such leverage. Governor Jerry Brown took higher education hostage in an attempt to force Republicans to support putting tax extensions on the ballot (see clip): the political calculation was that Republicans would be more upset if he shot UC than if he shot, say, CalWORKs, or at least might get more pressure from their conservative constituents. UC President Yudof ceded Brown’s first $500 million cut in January in an effort to “do all it can to help the state,” but then drew a line in the sand against the further $150 million cut. The response of Gov. Brown and the Democratic majorities was to cut the $150million and promise another $100 m cut if the state doesn’t make current revenue projections.
In a small-d democratic political world in which political representatives are directly accountable for the effects of their acts, destructive actions bounce back against their perpetrators. In that sort of world, compromise with your opponents might get you something. In our current political world, compromise gets you nothing: Brown doesn’t need Yudof, or any of us, and Sacramento doesn’t care about the rest of the state, because we never do anything to them. There is no logical endpoint to this for UC's budget: not $2.5 billion in general funds, not $2.3 billion, not $2.0 billion, not $1.65 bilion, etc.
So how do we make it stop? How do we give Sacramento a reason to make it stop?
My suggestions involve two corrections and an answer. The first two steps involve fixing public university tactics, with UC as the case I know best. The latter is an issue of international importance to the future of public education. I will devote a post to each of these.
1. If you don’t like constant cuts to public funding, stop showing public funds can be replaced with annual tuition increases.
Here’s an example. UC President Mark Yudof officially opposes privatization. He described privatization to a roundtable of UC student newspaper editors as “the point that I get out and march with the students." He defined the unique mission of public universities as great research and teaching quality for the nation’s highest proportions of low-income students. This is exactly right – Yudof is in effect describing “mass quality,” the original core of the postwar boom’s widely attractive vision of social development for everyone.
This was the best ever justification for high levels of public funding. Public higher education is not about the manificent training of a Harvard-style “natural aristocracy” to rule the rest, but about the superb training of each of us. No other theory of education – universal higher education, not uniform, but universal – scales to the enormity and complexity of the simultaneously cultural and technical problems that our societies all face.
But a bit later in the same conversation, Mark Yudof says, “if you mean [by privatization that] students are paying more and more of the cost of their education that seems to be the road we’re on.” But of course that is the main form of what the students and everyone else means by privatization. Yudof accepts this form of privatization, and implements it very frequently. UC’s de facto official position is high-tuition / high aid -- really high tuition logically in only a few years time -- and echoes the standard private university American funding model that the publics slowly started to adopt after 1980.
So which is it, UC? Is it no privatization, or continuous privatization in annual increments? UC is on both sides of the question intellectually, and on the side of continuous privatization in practice. The net impression left by Yudof’s sometimes eloquent remarks is that the public mission can be satisified by private money --high fees in conjunction with financial aid, for the state’s historically most diverse and underfinanced younger generation. UC policy gives the public no reason to oppose tuition increases, especially when they hear financial aid is good or when their own children are out of college
Interestingly, UC leaders are going against public opinion here: a recent PPIC poll suggested that three-quarters of respondents think that public universities are underfunded and that two-thirds of them want to raise taxes rather than raise fees. But if UC leaders don’t fight for zero fee increases, as a precondition for forcing solid public funding, why should the public do it for them?
The special tragedy of this ambiguity is that we already know what happens when we subject public universities to a mix of cuts and austerity. It’s very simple: educational attainment goes down. The US had a comparative educational advantage over the rest of the wealthy world for about 150 years – first at the high school level and then in college degrees. Now, for the first time in U.S. history, younger people are less educated than their baby-boomer parents (Measuring Up p. 5, John A. Douglass, Goldin & Katz, . . .). This decline coincides exactly with the steady shift in public colleges and universities from high public funding to high private tuition.
If you are wondering whether privatization caused this destruction, the answer is yes it did. Very briefly: private investment – anything from donations to student fees – logically tries to maximize its return, and thus piles in at the top, where attainment is already strong. Think of Meg Whitman building the most expensive dorm in history at her alma mater Princeton University. Private funds never adequately support the colleges with the highest percentage of low-income or otherwise disadvantaged students, which also generally have the lowest graduation rates. This is also true of a unique place like the University of California, where large numbers of low-income students had for decades lept whole quartiles of attainment in a four-year bound. Private money doesn’t have the scale, the scope, the social ambition, or the interest in those who start at low or medium levels, and thus can’t budget the overall American attainment rate that depends on moving those groups in huge numbers. The attainment rates of the lower three quartiles haven’t improved in thirty years (Mortenson, June 2010), That’s all the time it took for the country’s pro-private funding model to destroy the country’s global educational leadership.
The first step towards saving public universities is to stop acting as though annual fee increases can replace the public funding that made US higher education great in the first place. They can’t. (UC leaders know they can't, but it's the annual increase actions that count.) They never will. Public funding will never come back as long as universities keep offering this phony and painful substitute.