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The Increasingly Private Public School | The Nation

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The Increasingly Private Public School

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They call it a public institution and it sounds like one from its name, but 92 percent of the money to run the University of Virginia comes from private sources. At the University of Michigan the figure is 82 percent; at the University of Illinois a mere 75 percent. The privatization of the nation's greatest, once-public institutions of higher learning is well under way.

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Nicholas von Hoffman
Nicholas von Hoffman, a veteran newspaper, radio and TV reporter and columnist, is the author, most recently, of...

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"America is rapidly privatizing its public colleges and universities, whose mission used to be to serve the public good," Katharine Lyall, president emeritus of the University of Wisconsin, told the New York Times. "Public control is slipping away." Graham Spanier, president of Pennsylvania State University, blames never-ending tuition increases on "public higher education's slow slide toward privatization." (Eighty-seven percent of his budget now comes from private sources.)

Educators, getting less money per student every year from their state legislatures, say they have no choice but to privatize. Christopher Edley Jr., dean of the Boalt Hall School of Law at Berkeley, wants to go private because "in the sharply competitive world of top law schools, leadership requires continuing investments that the State of California has been unwilling to make.... Everyone is just praying for the legislature to come to its senses, but 'faith-based fundraising' isn't working."

Edley's school might as well be private already. Tuition at Boalt for an in-state student is a staggering $24,341 a year and a super-staggering $36,586 for out-of-staters.

America was once a country offering a free college education to its youth. As recently as the mid-1960s, tuition for in-state students was virtually free at places like the University of Illinois. But free college education, which began under the Lincoln Administration in 1862, has been killed off. In its place, privatization has made public schools copy the private schools' high-cost-you-borrow business plan.

Brand-name public universities can successfully go private. The lesser-known public colleges and universities cannot because they don't have the prestige. They are being left to shrivel from lack of appropriations resulting from taxpayer resentment and the lobbying machinations of rich and powerful private schools.

Private schools oppose direct appropriations and tuition-free education because it would leave them out of the money. They would truly have to be private, so they have lobbied for the present system of tuition scholarships, grants and loans for tuition that cut them in on the money stream. The strategy has worked for them but not for college students from middle- and lower-income backgrounds.

Four years at a public college now costs about $50,000, and the bite is two and a half times higher at a private institution. Costs are so large that some financial advisers are telling their clients that they have to choose between paying for their children's college or having enough to retire on. Families don't make enough to save for both, and advisers reason that if the children borrow to get through school they have enough years in front of them to pay back their loans and also have the time to save for their retirement. Their parents don't.

For countless middle-class couples the costs of bringing up a child are an incentive to have either one or none. Since these ultra-responsible types make the ultra-responsible parents, Republicans, Democrats, ethicists and soothsayers, lay and clerical, prize their failure to reproduce themselves is an irreplaceable loss to the nation.

Poorer young people fated to attend second-rate high schools are bucking up against recent changes in scholarship policies that work against their getting the minimum financial help they need. College once again is becoming something that the children of unskilled parents will attend only through special gifts and heroic application.

For those middle-class youths who do get themselves born, college costs and debt can rob them of some of the best years of their lives. It is estimated that a quarter of college students are financing their educations in part through credit cards.

Last year students and their families borrowed almost $14 billion. Graduating with a $15,000 to $20,000 debt limits a young person's possibilities. No time for experimenting and/or marching on Washington or helping to make a better world. For debt-burdened college graduates, it's get a job as fast as you can, keep your mouth shut and hustle as hard as you can.

For masters of the universe, this system not only yields interest on their borrowing but is an effective method of social control. If today's youth aren't as they were in Martin Luther King's time, you know why.

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