I am–at least today–a proud alum of a public university. Actually, back when I was submitting college applications, a state school was the farthest thing from my mind, an afterthought at the suggestion of my guidance counselor. Good thing I did, because while I was accepted to the Ivies on my list, I couldn’t afford them! Luckily, SUNY Stony Brook offered me a quality education at a rate I could pay through work and reasonable loans.
Not to say that anyone can put himself through college by delivering Chinese takeout anymore, but state schools make a massive positive difference in the trajectory of the lives of hundreds of thousands of students a year. That’s why the NY Times Thursday email newsletter touching on the college money crisis struck home for me:
The coronavirus has caused severe budget problems for American higher education. But many colleges’ financial troubles are much larger than the virus. They have been building for years and stem, above all, from a breakdown in this country’s hodgepodge system of paying for higher education…
The current system arose after World War II and depended on three sources of money: students (and their parents); the federal government; and state governments. Of those, state governments were supposed to provide the most money. That’s why many Americans attend something known as a state college.
Over time, though, state officials came to a realization. If they cut their higher-education budgets, colleges could make up the shortfall by raising tuition. Many other state-funded programs, like health care, highways, prisons and K-12 education, have no such alternative.
“In every economic downturn since the 1980s, states have disproportionately cut college and university budgets,” Kevin Carey writes in a new Washington Monthly article that offers an exceptionally clear description of the problem. Since 2008, states have cut inflation-adjusted per-student spending by 13 percent, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.
“These budget cuts have left most colleges struggling for resources, even as elite colleges, both private and public, can raise substantial revenue from tuition and alumni donations. Not surprisingly, inequality in higher education has grown. Many poor and middle-class students who excel in high school attend colleges with inadequate resources and low graduation rates — and end up with student debt but no degree.“
“Again for emphasis, cuts to public higher education disproportionately hurts disadvantaged students. The Washington Post reports that low-income students are dropping out of college this fall in alarming numbers, primarily because of COVID-era complications that those with resources can overcome. And this is taking into account all the ways community colleges have sought to support students during this period.”
College matters, perhaps now more than ever. The economic argument is clear: in general, individuals who do not earn college degrees can expect to earn less than those who do. But education matters in and of itself as an end, not just a financial means. We live in a world of stark inequities, where the gaps between the haves and the have-nots widens with every passing news cycle. These are gaps not just in resources but in knowledge. Those lacking the ability or inclination to understand cause and effect, parse data, and trust facts over fiction are more vulnerable financially and physically than their rational peers.
A solid education–along with a plan to use it productively–feels like a lifeline wrapped in a golden ticket. This is why public higher education matters so much. The Times commentary concludes on a dour note:
“The decline in state support for higher education is unlikely to reverse itself, and most middle-class families can’t easily afford to pay rapidly rising tuition bills. That leaves the federal government. A central question, then, is whether it will step in — or whether a college education will become ever more of a luxury good.”
One cannot avoid the simple conclusion here: those who support public education have to support–vote for and hold accountable–those on the state and federal level who directly support public education. Public education is, by definition, of or concerning the people as a whole, which means it’s our responsibility to defend and promote opportunity for even the most disadvantaged of us or suffer the consequences. My public education experience blends into that of countless others as an irreplaceable pathway to financial stability that in turn creates economic opportunity for others. Few investments in health, happiness, and productivity pay off such handsome dividends.