One of the many casualties of our national obsession with the war on Iraq is the emerging crisis of America’s public colleges and universities. The situation is so grave that for the first time since the end of World War II college may become a financial impossibility for a quarter or more of our nation’s young people. As nearly every state in the union suffers the effects of a recession and tax cuts, legislatures are slashing higher-education budgets, and public colleges are responding by raising tuition and cutting aid. According to the National Center on Public Policy and Higher Education, tuition and fees at four-year institutions jumped 2 to 24 percent in 2002 in all fifty states. Next year many students will face additional tuition hikes of 10 to 20 percent. In New York, which faces an $11.5 billion budget hole, Governor Pataki has proposed a 15 percent cut in the state’s higher-education budget and a tuition increase of about 35 percent for students attending the state and city universities. “Most observers agree [these measures] represent only the opening round in what is likely to be a series of painful adjustments to diminished revenues,” says the center’s report College Affordability in Jeopardy.
Many students from low-wage households may be forced to drop out. Those who remain enrolled will almost certainly need another job on top of the one or two they already hold down. But work without end spells less time for study. In either case the life chances of many working-class young people are now severely reversed. It is an open secret that good jobs are disappearing faster than new opportunities are being created. Those without a degree are consigned to work as cashiers or domestic workers; in fast-food restaurants or nonunion construction sites, where they will be lucky to find minimum-wage, benefit-free employment.
For many public colleges, budget cuts and tuition increases are not new. States like Massachusetts, California and New York have been running on empty for more than two decades, and their systems are threadbare. Their latest “painful adjustments” include more hiring freezes and early retirements among full-time faculty, a combination that spells further growth in poorly paid part-time, contingent staff; bulging class size; and fewer course offerings. But once fat and sassy systems like Wisconsin, Indiana and Michigan now find themselves under the knife for the first time in recent memory. And state universities throughout the Midwest and the South–where state universities prospered during the industrial boom of the 1980s and ’90s–are under siege as well.
Nationwide, university administrators and trustees are being told, in effect, that the price of survival for their public institutions is to become more private. So, just as public colleges shut their doors to needy students by raising tuition, they practice triage by closing departments that cannot raise outside money and make grant-procurement a criterion for faculty hires.
The budget crisis is no accident, but rather the symptom of a calculated Bush Administration policy to privatize public goods, including higher education, by starving social programs. In its race to restore America to the Coolidge years, the Administration is undermining a central condition of American economic development after World War II: the scientific and technological knowledge provided by our state universities. The federal government could have found the resources to bail the states out in their quest to maintain education and other vital services. But it chose instead a massive gift to the rich of tax cuts and a costly military buildup, which together have put the federal Treasury in the red. So governors, most of them Republicans, who have sought relief from Washington have gone home empty-handed.
This irrational policy is made politically palatable because, unlike their counterparts in the fields of public health and primary education, higher-education unions and university administrators have not waged a vigorous campaign to build public support for their institutions. They have failed to gain public recognition for the idea that, given the realities of the job market, higher education should be a right, not a privilege. And they have failed to refute charges from the right that universities are “ivory towers” rife with political correctness that teach subversive ideas and dispense useless knowledge.
It is a hard-won democratic achievement that American colleges and universities are no longer the privilege of the rich, the well-born and the talented. It is time for America’s 15 million college students and their parents, along with the 1 million faculty and instructional staff of higher-education institutions, their unions and professional associations, and the tens of millions of college alumni, to insist that higher education be a right, and that our public colleges be well equipped and well staffed.
In some states, such as California, faculty and staff unions at public universities have begun to put higher education on the agenda of state legislatures. In New York, these unions have joined other public-sector workers to press for new taxes on higher incomes. But in most states the deep resistance to new taxes means that prospects for higher education are grim. In the states, and nationally, coalitions must be built that convince state governments and Congress that our nation’s public-school crisis extends beyond the twelfth grade. If that task is not accomplished, our colleges and universities will soon revert to being enclaves of the wealthy. And the big losers will be not only working-class students, many of them black and Latino, but American democracy.