« Intelligence failures | Main | Speaker of the House »

Privatizing higher education

We live in a time when Americans seem incapable of critically scrutinizing what politicians tell them--4 out of 10 Americans still believe Saddam Hussein was involved in the attacks of September 11, and 3 out of ten believe he personally planned them.

This staggering public ignorance can be traced back to a trend that (like so many other modern plagues) initially gained steam during the Reagan administration. I'm talking about the privatization of American higher education. We have lost sight of the fact that an educated population is a public good; we are paying the price in an uncritical and ignorant electorate.

This report on the most expensive colleges notes in passing that the rate of tuition hikes at public universities continues to skyrocket. State officials say that this is a response to tough economic times, but this explanation is too simplistic. In many cases, public university tuition has increased because of state schemes to privatize the universities.

Colorado, for example, has approved a new system of vouchers for higher education. Instead of supporting public education directly with state funds, Colorado's program sends the funds directly to students in the form of vouchers, which can be used at state universities or at selected private colleges. This redirection of state money means that for accounting purposes, many of the state's public universities will be receiving less than ten percent of their funding from the state. Under Colorado law, this means that schools would no longer be classified as "state funded."

Under the voucher program, schools would no longer be technically state funded, and could pursue enterprise status - freeing them from a wide variety of state regulations regarding hiring, firing, tuition, contracts, and more. Some say it will allow schools to operate more like a private business.

Texas, meanwhile, is moving toward privatization by "deregulating" tuition. This means that individual schools will be able to set tuition rates as they see fit--again, allowing them to operate more like private businesses.

In Massachusetts, Governor Mitt Romney proposed the outright privatization of three of the state's public campuses.

In every case, these privatization schemes are shifting more of the burden for supporting the work of the universities to the students, and away from the taxpayers. This fits with the post-Reagan view that higher education primarily benefits the individual students--the "customers"--and does very little to benefit the public at large.

During the great expansion of higher education during the 1960s, there was great public support for universities. It was assumed that universities were a "public good," that investment in them served the public interest, and that the chief beneficiary of that investment was the public itself. Beginning around 1980, a conservative mood swept the country, resulting in the election of President Reagan; Reagan led a tax revolt that systematically reduced public investment in everything except national defense. Whereas in the 1960s universities had been seen as central to national defense, that assumption dissipated in the 1980s . . . . The notion developed that the chief beneficiaries of universities were the students educated, not the public at large, so that it should be the students themselves who bore a larger portion of the cost of education. Faced with substantial inflation and declining support, universities increased fees. From the early 1980s to the present, for example, annual fees at the University of California have risen from zero in 1960-61, to $450 in 1971, to $3600 at the present time, down from two years ago. State support for Berkeley's operating budget has fallen from over 60% in 1980 to 34% at the present time. In the process of privatization of public universities, the largest single group of private contributors is the students, who now contribute about 15% of the operating budget of the University.
The consequences of privatization go beyond the tuition hikes that make higher education less accessible to the less affluent. Privatization also means that the universities no longer see themselves as agents for the public good. Their goals are reoriented toward serving their customers: the students who can afford to attend, and the corporations that offer funding in exchange for a say over what questions are asked and what research agendas are pursued.
When the market interests totally dominate colleges and universities, their role as public agencies significantly diminishes -- as does their capacity to provide venues for the testing of new ideas and agendas for public action. What is lost is the understanding that knowledge has other than instrumental purposes, that ideas are important whether or not they confer personal advantage.

The increasing ignorance of the American public can arguably be traced to two phenomena, both of which are exacerbated, if not caused, by our unwillingness to treat higher education as a public good. First, fewer university-educated people have had the benefit of spending time in an environment where "knowledge has other than instrumental purposes." Second, fewer people can afford the education that the remaining bastions of public liberal education (like the Universities of Colorado, Texas, and Massachusetts) still provide.

And so we are left with a society increasingly bereft of those accoutrements of civilization that can't be provided by the private market. Like good consumers, we all know how to express our preferences, but we are increasingly unable, as citizens, to critique the political marketing campaigns for the products that are offered to satisfy those preferences.

We think that Saddam Hussein planned the 9-11 attacks. And we flirt with reelecting George W. Bush. Charmin really is softer!