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Privatization of higher education continues

The privatization of this country's institutions of higher learning continues apace. The Legal Reader highlights an LA Times article about Boalt dean Christopher Edley's response to continued cuts in state funding for California's flagship public law school. The bottom line: Boalt must seek private money to replace lost public funding, but it can't succeed unless private donors can be assured that the school will dance to their tune and not to the state's. As Edley puts it, Boalt should be able to "eat what it kills."

On a campus where departments expect to rank among the best, the law school has fallen out of the top 10 in some national ratings. Its nonresident tuition has soared to match the priciest private institutions. It is losing faculty to rivals and has outgrown its aged buildings.

As Edley points out, state money has faded from 60% of Boalt's budget in 1994 to 30%. That has been offset mainly by higher tuition: California residents pay just under $22,000 a year to attend the law school, about double the rate four years ago. Annual out-of-state tuition is nearly $34,000.

The same thing is happening to public medical schools. My own alma mater, the University of Colorado School of Medicine, is seeking "enterprise status," which will enable it to raise tuition as much as necessary to cover the loss of state funding. Dean Richard Krugman writes in the most recent issue of the alumni magazine that tuition revenue has exceeded State support for the first time in more than a century, and that this "de-facto privatization of higher education in our state has received no substantive response by the public, the Governor, or the legislature."

The privatization of higher education doesn't get as much media attention as, say, the privatization of Social Security, but its consequences may turn out to be more significant. Higher education has always been the ticket to socioeconomic mobility in America. A college or graduate degree is even more important for retaining a foothold in the middle class in the face of economic globalization. And yet we are choosing, bit by bit, to limit access to higher education only to those whose families are already wealthy. As states limit access to their public universities, the federal government chooses to make financial aid harder to get.

This is a recipe for disaster. One of the reasons why class warfare is so muted in this country is that everyone here believes that anyone can succeed and grow rich. Universal access to higher education was always a critical reason why this American myth was rooted in some kind of reality. I wonder how long the AM-radio demogogues can keep the myth alive after the reality ceases to exist.