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Tuesday, November 8, 2016

Tuesday, November 8, 2016

Biting the Populist Bullet

The Great Mistake is out! And I have a related piece in today's Inside Higher Ed about the choice facing the public university after the election.  Regardless of the vote today, the 2/3rds of the U.S. population without a college degree will still be treated like second-class citizens by the political establishment. Most of those will still feel that public universities aren't on their side.  In this common case, they don't see what difference public funding for universities makes or why regular people should pay for it.

My article asks what we can do about this, and the answer starts with universities working directly with "red-state" regions rather than helping their college population escape them.  Have a look and tell me what you think.
I encountered a version of the problem preparing my lecture at Ohio State, where the campus website features research by one of their distinguished higher ed scholars into why college is still worth it.  The page focuses only on the private market value of finishing college, meaning the graduate's higher future earnings.  It turns out that college offers a 12-14 percent return on investment.

True enough.  But justifying public universities in private-good terms is what we might call . . . the great mistake.  It's a political mistake because we can't ask people to subsidize higher ed if all it does is raise individual graduate's future salaries. Milton Friedman made this point in 1955: yes we should subsidize "general education for citizenship" (though not, according to him, with direct funding to colleges); no we should not subsidize "specialized vocational training" that benefits only that individual.  We don't tax people to support horseback riding academies because we don't think riding skills are a public good (though that could always change).  So the ROI argument that is supposed to inspire the taxpayer with the public university's utility actually gives them a reason to force the student to front the costs.

The ROI argument is also an economic mistake because, in contrast to the case for riding academies, 2/3rds of the total value of universities is nonmarket and/or indirect and/or social. So universities--and OSU has plenty of company--alienate a huge percentage of voters who aren't associated with college and then guarantee public underinvestment by ignoring the university's public value, all with our supposedly pragmatic "here's what's in it for you" argument.  There's a lot more on this and related issues in the book, where I use the work of the economist Walter McMahon among others to talk about our colossally foolish abandoning of the public good understanding of higher ed.  For starters, university publicists need to change their strategy radically to include the public-good value.

After my lecture yesterday, my host took me to see a movie I've been trying to find for months. It's Starving the Beast, about the Republican war on public university funding in six states. It interviews  pro-public and anti-public activists and intellectuals about the state of the public university, with the former group including fairly conservative senior managers, and the latter largely funded by right-wing think tanks.

A member of the pro-public camp, a former president of UT Austin, laid out the stakes correctly when he said that the current trend is towards excellent higher ed for an elite and lower quality for everyone else.  Yes indeed, that is the plan.  UNC-Chapel Hill's Gene Nichol said that the idea of the public university was, in contrast, to provide the best that American higher education had to offer to everyone who was willing to undertake it.  The University of Virginia's Siva Vaidhyanathan gave the best short take-down of Clayton Christensen's notion of disruptive innovation that you will see, and also ended the film with a glowing vision of what places like Iowa State did to change the lives of the everyday people in their regions.

The anti-public people, including Jeff Sandefer in Texas, were focused on undermining the alleged power of liberal professors and putting higher ed on a pay-to-play basis.  You would study 14th century painting only if you were willing to pay for it. The public would effectively pay for nothing, presumably because the paying of taxes does not allow consent for any specific expenditure, which violates the definition of personal freedom of the anti-public folks.  (A version of the hardcore anti-public plan has actually been implemented in the United Kingdom by the Tory government.)  The anti-public people were fairly happy with the obvious effect on public universities (it was an all-research-flagship film), which is that they are losing their independence both intellectually and financially from the political arena.

There's much more to say about the whole debate and I'm sorry Starving the Beast isn't for sale for $5 on the Internet--it should have been all over the place in election season. It has some lovely idealism about the enlightened society, and it stages a major battle between free development and political control.  But the film didn't feature students except in atmosphere shots, or professors in action in teaching in research.  This means that it retained the public university as an abstract ideal, one that won't be as important as food, shelter, basic employment, and related core goods that so much of the population is struggling with. 

The only thing to do in this situation is to double down on the public vision.  The great mistake is that we aren't allowing public universities to deliver a fully educated society.  What we're wrecking is the institutional and financial means to deliver that--better quality and much more broadly than we are doing now.  The recovery will come when we make the vision of free development a populist cause.  Higher learning needs to be funded and implemented at regional colleges as well as at the venerable and monumental and overly-selective flagships.  The university's democracy project can beat the goal of political control, but only if it enlists the non-college population by giving them what we know changes lives.


Anonymous said...

Your view may have taken a hit tonight.

Chris Newfield said...

@AnonymousMy view EXPLAINS last night. Clintonism cast public goods as private investments for human capital and profitable technology and most people--and lets just say 100% ofl non-college voters--felt left behind by that. Note that Trump's acceptance speech repeated his most popular theme of making infrastructure great again. Clintonism is dead, and that's not as bad for university people as it seems today, since it drove the slow motion decline cycle we've been stuck in for 25 years.

Anonymous said...

so a Trump presidency and having all three branches of Federal government (and most state governments) controlled by "drain the swamp" Republicans is good for public funding of higher education?

Chris Newfield said...

@Anonymous it's not good. But it's a good opportunity to wean ourselves of the dead compromise. People didn't vote for Grover Norquist. I'll have a new post up later about this.

cloudminder said...

Part of remaking involves a demo crew...

Pundits saying HRC did not go to Wisconsin after the primary, not once. If her team followed Higher Ed news  on what was happening there UW  then  it would have been obvious that she would need to do multiple visits during the general but that did not happen and a 'great mistake' for her campaign apparently
She said she did not know how higher Ed 'got like this, but we're gonna fix it'

The plan sounded a lot like just sending $ to higher ed admins as payment for some sections of students /portion of their tuition ,but not really changing the game...

And so then

Wondered how C. Newfield could say

How to get to this expert assertion made here?:


"The fix is already starting. Bernie Sanders got free college on the Hillary Clinton agenda. Her version is inadequate, but her administration will serve as a staging ground for a renaissance of ideas about increasing learning nationwide, improving research funding, and getting price-gouging intermediaries out of education."

...How did you get there?
Did you think Sanders would be allowed political capital internally in that party after Election or?
Also what US Senator Grassley was/is looking at on Clintons CGIF etc  on Abedin,Mills  work for CGI/foundation and Gov simultaneously/concurrently etc etc


reads a lot like some of the worst practices of higher ed that need reform so ...where was all the positive review of her higher ed reforms proposals coming from really?
No discussion  specifically of what is to happen with Title IX as this admin wraps up and HRC from her campaign did not say what she would do with that Title IX caseload - schools under review etc.-  in her admin either...

On higher ed what was an affirm vote for HRC really going to be for? To just do whatever Blum, Napolitano Feinstein Regents wanted to keep rolling and send it to masses?? Did not hear a clear detail that was something to point to, support...imo

California Policy Issues said...

Weren't land grant (public) universities (including Berkeley) set up by the federal govt. to teach and research useful arts? Yes, Milton Friedman (who was simply airing the economists' division between specific and general human capital) made a case that students should pay there own way. But public opinion has never bought the Friedman idea and has always supported a subsidy to explicitly vocational education as well as broader higher ed - not just citizenship. Community colleges are a prime example. -Dan Mitchell

Chris Newfield said...

Cloudminder I agree with your doubts about the now-defunct Clinton higher ed policy basket. My answer to the question: I thought the student debt and poverty crisis would drive her towards free college more than the Sanders contingent within the party, and that her election would have launched the activist groundgame of pressuring her towards a free college system that wouldn't further impoverish public colleges or micromanage them from legislatures. Very similar work now needs to be done to head off the Trump alternatives: worse austerity, deregulated for-profits, risk-sharing rules for colleges (college pays you back if you don't get a job), re-privatized student loan packages, etc.) I'm a "best defense is a good offense" type, and I think we need to frame progressive higher ed standards and goals and push them relentlessly as what Trump will not provide.

Chris Newfield said...

@California Policy Issues I agree!

cloudminder said...

Thanks for the answer, guess some of us saw the ACA healthobamacare moves and came to different conclusions on Dem internal party politics moves and so could not lend imagination to a renaissance of ideas battling it out etc.
And the internal Dem history on support of for profits in higher education that HRC did not want to address also,
No discussion if other cost drivers besides tuition in college university towns/regions
they've gotten away with being nonspecific for so long:


“It’s kind of a shocking change,” said Andrew Hanson, senior research analyst at Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce. “It’s the first time they’ve included any sort of specificity on higher ed issues. It really does represent a big change from the past.”

Still, like most party platforms, it is short on details, and is more a set of priorities than an actual policy document."
--Going forward yes the best offense for either/any side is going to have to include details and a comprehensive vision.

Anonymous said...

Chris you say above: " I think we need to frame progressive higher ed standards and goals and push them relentlessly as what Trump will not provide."

So my question is how do we "push relentlessly forward" when all the levers of federal government, and the levers of most state governments, are controlled by Republicans? What exactly does "push relentlessly forward" mean?

I saw an article in the NY Times today that 42 of the 50 states shifted rightward in their voting two days ago. I don't think these voters and the people they elected will give public universities the time of day. In fact I think they view us as sort of the base camp of their enemies. Why should they pay any attention to us, other than to cut the public funding? I think we don't have any leverage with them, seeing that we have overwhelmingly supported the other (liberal) side.

But please tell me the specifics (briefly if possible!) of how you would propose to increase public funding/support in the current Red State dominance of national political culture.

cloudminder said...

former Boalt Dean Edley making predictions about what Trump will do:

"We should expect abdication of almost all federal compliance activity that would constrain state discretion,” said Christopher Edley Jr., president of the Opportunity Institute in Berkeley, who was on the working policy group advising Hillary Clinton on education during the campaign."

Chris Newfield said...

@AnonymousExcellent questions. It has to start with reframing public colleges as the best stuff for regular people (we are the ones who develop working-class capabilities as part of our sense of the public good, and we fight against giving them the fake college that budget cutters want for them). We have to do some things to move more of our existing resources to the rock face: full costing of research, redeploy some admin in direct teaching and research support. We have to continue to advocate for low tuition and student debt and the public funding reset by tying that specifically to access for the working class families many of whom (including 24% of young Latinos) voted for Trump. Public flagships and big research systems need to work with other segments to improve their resources for local educational uplift. This means not giving lower-income people "job training" in the Clinton-Obama mode but telling them that we are giving them the best material to develop their creative capabilities just as we do for students at Stanford and Harvard--same goals of human development with less money. Finally, we say that we're creating supply pressures on the economy to find jobs for all the capable graduates that we are cranking out from every kind of background. This recovery cycle is designed to bring in communities who have felt like college serves other people but never them--that it allows "red state" community participation and the concrete experience of learning and progress that they rightly or wrongly feel has been denied to them (often rightly: people like scott walker love to cut regional colleges). We let really good research universities like UC get put in the elitist corner, and in fact have been doing that ourselves with the endless branding of high status partnerships with tech companies that don't hire any working class people, with ridiculously high rejection rates, with the flood of NRT students, etc. We need to take back the populist, democratic education project from the right. It's absurd that they own it (the bad version) in the first place. Lots of fun work to do.

Chris Newfield said...

I heard the same thing from a DC lobbyist for ACE yesterday here at ASHE in Columbus. But if public universities are basically the same as privates, and for-profit isn't clearly educationally different from non-profit, why wouldn't you deregulate? Chris Edley et al need to reckon with their role in undermining the public good dimensions of higher ed such that you can in fact turn what's left into the result of a private exchange between parties. @cloudminder

Anonymous said...

Chris thanks for 11/11 5:43am reply. Putting it in my own words, we try to show Red State leaders/supporters the benefits of public higher education for the white working class who voted so overwhelmingly for Trump. Quite a challenge that, maybe at the same level of difficulty as convincing them of the reality (and dire consequences) of climate change. Note that this vote, as interpreted by many analysts, was a specific rejection of the educated elites. You might be underestimating the level of their antipathy to higher ed.

But still I agree we need to try to reach them; just having protest marches isn't going to fix the funding problems the public university faces.

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