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The Plight of Public Universities | The Nation

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Katrina vanden Heuvel

Katrina vanden Heuvel

Politics, current affairs and riffs and reflections on the news.

The Plight of Public Universities

There's a crisis in this country in higher education--and the House GOP's reckless fiscal policies are making it worse. To pay for the rebuilding costs associated with Hurricane Katrina, House Republicans just last week passed $50 billion in budget cuts, eviscerating student loan programs, Medicaid and food stamps while simultaneously seeking to enact a five-year $57 billion tax break for millionaires and corporations. ("The beauty of taking the cuts out of Medicaid and student loan programs...is that it doesn't reduce the flow of funds to the Republican campaign committees by a single dime," Washington Post columnist Harold Meyerson observed.)

Make no mistake: the loan cuts could be devastating for low- and middle-income students. The Emergency Campaign for America's Priorities which fought to build opposition to the GOP's budget cuts said that New York students and their families would be looking at a $6,000 hike in costs for higher education should the GOP cuts take effect.

This assault on the poor and the middle-class comes at a low moment in higher education in general. Republicans' fiscal policies have made college less affordable for many. And with less money available at the state and federal level, schools have had to raise tuition and impose other costs on families least equipped to bear the burden.

The New York Times recently reported that for the year starting July 2004 inflation increased only slightly, by 2.2 percent, while tuition at public universities rose by 7.1 percent (it increased by 5.9 percent at private colleges.) If you want to send a child to public university in your own state, you'll now pay an average of $15,566 per year. If your child wants to attend a private college or university, you're looking at an average annual cost of nearly $32,000. Predictably, the enrollment gap between rich and poor has widened in recent years.

While costs are rising, affordable student loans are getting harder and harder to find. The website insidehighered.com reported that students are relying on higher-interest private loans which saddle them with debt for many years after graduation. Colleges are also using merit-based aid as opposed to need-based tuition assistance, which traditionally has helped the neediest students afford the costs of attending college.

At the same time as costs are rising, the quality of what those costs are paying for is decreasing. Colleges are using part-time professors to teach their classes. Course size is swelling, and universities, a professor at Cornell who wrote a book about rising education costs told the Times, "are having great difficulty maintaining the quality of the education they provide."

Take Wayne State University, in Detroit. According to Insidehighered.com, the state government cut the school's funding forcing Wayne State to eliminate 200 staff jobs and "close one college and combine two others to save on adminstrative costs."

The University's provost told the website "We literally couldn't pay our bills," and Wayne State increased tuition by 18.5 percent this year alone because the situation was so desperate. And what's happening at Wayne State is happening nationwide as state colleges are victimized by a federal government which is shortchanging education, and state governments which are slashing funding year after year.

Public universities are being targeted for privatization as a result. "Taxpayer support for public universities, measured per student, has plunged more precipitously since 2001 than at any time in two decades," the Times reported last month. Faculty members are devoting more time to research often funded by private interests; college presidents are raising billions of dollars in private funds, and some of the buildings being built on public university campuses now bear the names of corporate donors.

The Right's immoral fiscal policies are bankrupting the very principles we claim to cherish like access to public education and the possibility of upward mobility for lower- and middle-class Americans. To reverse this trend that we've witnessed over the past five years, we can take five common sense steps.

First, as Sen Edward Kennedy proposed this past January, one bold idea for vastly expanding educational opportunity for all is to offer every child a contract that they, their parents and Uncle Sam will sign when a child reaches eighth grade. Kennedy said "the contract will state that if you work hard, if you finish high school and are admitted to college, we will guarantee you the cost of earning a degree." He added that "We should make undergraduate tuition free for any young person willing to serve as a math or science teacher in a public school for at least four years."

Second, Congress should enact the bipartisan Student Aid Reward Act (Kennedy and Rep. George Miller are co-sponsors) which would provide students with $17.2 billion in new college scholarship funds without costing taxpayers a single penny. The STAR Act will encourage colleges to take advantatge of less expensive federal student loan programs instead of relying on and enriching middlemen--the banks and other private lenders. The stakes are high; as Kennedy said, "We cannot allow 400,000 college-ready students to be held back from going to college full time and 200,000 students to be shut of college completely every year, because they can't afford the cost."

Third, as MoveOn and other progressive organizations have pointed out, pressure should be applied to Congress to roll back Bush's tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans and increase resources for student loans and other programs that offer broader access to oppportunity to Americans.

Fourth, let's encourage all private institutions to steal a page out of Princeton University's playbook. In 2001, the University did away with student loans and replaced them with "grants" that, it said, "need not be repaid" and it made getting an education at Princeton affordable for all enrolled there.

Fifth, and finally, our nation needs to put a new emphasis on the educational principles that the Washington Monthly identified in its groundbreaking First Annual College Rankings issue published this past September. The magazine said that "three central criteria" should determine how we judge the success of a college in fulfilling its public mission to the American people.

"Universities should be engines of social mobility," the Monthly wrote, "they should produce the academic minds and scientific research that advance knowledge and drive economic growth, and they should inculcate and encourage an ethic of service." The survey produced some surprising results. UCLA ranked 25th in the US News College Guide but on the Monthly's list it finished second because it "excelled in research and...social mobility...because of its astoundingly high graduation rate given its large number of lower-income students." Penn St. finished sixth and Texas A&M seventh because they met the Monthly's service-oriented, opportunity-expanding criteria more successfully than Yale (15th) and Harvard (16th).

Democratic Rep. Chet Edwards told the Houston Chronicle that the GOP's effort to eviscerate student loan programs is akin to "taking the most from those who have the least and nothing from those who have the most."

The same, sadly, could be said of our country's deeply uneven commitment to higher education for all Americans. If the country wants to live up to its vaunted principles, the GOP's drive to enact policies that put the privileged few before people-in-need must be ended.

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