On February 25, three University of Arizona graduate students—Kyle Blessinger, Zach Brooks, and Sarah Ann Meggison—had a meeting with Kelli Ward, a Republican state senator in Arizona. They were there to lobby against massive new cuts to state spending on higher education; the number being thrown around was $75 million. Under the state constitution, attending the university is supposed to be as “nearly free as possible,” but due to state budget cuts, tuition had increased more than 70 percent between 2008 and 2013 for in-state students—the severest hike in the country. Now it was poised to go up even more, while funds for graduate instructors were likely to be squeezed even further.

Blessinger, a 28-year-old Air Force veteran, was particularly concerned. He’d used up his GI benefits for his undergraduate education, and with a year left before he finishes his MA in higher education, he already carries $65,000 in student debt. In the past, he had worked as a teaching assistant in two classes, which earned him a tuition waiver—but this semester, because of budget cuts, the school could only afford to give him one. To make ends meet, he was working as a bartender and freelancing as a private security guard, occasionally at parties thrown by affluent undergraduates.

“I don’t think veterans should necessarily have to work two or three jobs just to be able to afford to live while we’re going to school,” Blessinger says. “I don’t have time to study. Some days, it’s quite tough.”

A tall man with a nearly clean-shaven head, Blessinger has a doleful, hound-dog expression. His right arm is sleeved with tattoos; among them is an image of his pug, T-Bone, dressed as the Red Baron and flying a fighter plane; he got T-Bone as a therapy animal to help him through a depression while he was enlisted. “Valor” is inked on Blessinger’s right wrist, “Truth” on his left.

Blessinger says he dreams of a career in education reform, “working with state governments, the federal government, to rewrite policy to make state higher education more accessible and more equitable.” He planned to apply to a joint law and PhD program after finishing his MA—but given his onerous debt, he’s been reconsidering his options.

The three students thought that Ward, a conservative who is rumored to be considering a primary challenge to Senator John McCain, might be sympathetic to the plight of a struggling veteran. That’s not how the meeting turned out, however. “She actually was pretty rude to him,” recalls Brooks, a fifth-year PhD student in second-language acquisition. According to all three students, Ward called Blessinger “entitled” and told him, “If you don’t like being here, other states have different programs for vets, and maybe you should go there.”

“She called me an entitled little prick,” says Blessinger, admittedly paraphrasing. “I work three jobs, plus I go to graduate school. I’m not sure how much more biting the bullet she wants me to do.” (Ward, after initially agreeing to talk, didn’t respond to follow-up e-mails.)

Now it looks like Blessinger will have to bite the bullet even harder. When the legislature finally passed a budget, it didn’t cut $75 million—it cut $99 million, including $28 million from the University of Arizona. Bruce Wheeler, assistant minority leader in Arizona’s House of Representatives, believes that the Republicans would like to do away with public education altogether. “I’m absolutely convinced that’s their agenda,” he says. “At every level of public education, the Republican majority is undertaking to defund and privatize.”

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Arizona’s cuts were the deepest in the country, but the state is not alone in gutting funding for higher education. After the economic crash of 2008, almost every state in the nation cut its higher-education budget. (The exceptions were oil-rich Alaska and North Dakota.) As the recession eased, most states started restoring some of that funding, though not to previous levels. According to a 2014 report from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, average per-student state spending is 23 percent lower than it was before 2008. Eight Republican-dominated states, however, have kept cutting. Among them are North Carolina, Wisconsin, Arizona, Louisiana, and South Carolina. In the latter three, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities reports, per-student spending as of last year was down by more than 40 percent since the start of the recession.

Higher education, of course, has long been a target of conservative Republicans. Ronald Reagan made a national name for himself in part by attacking the University of California system as a hotbed of subversion; one of his first acts as governor was ousting visionary UC president Clark Kerr. Continuing in that tradition, some politicians, particularly those in North Carolina and Wisconsin, have taken aim at campus liberalism. In North Carolina, the influential political donor Art Pope, a close associate of the Koch brothers, has led an ideological crusade against the state’s university system. As Jane Mayer reported in The New Yorker, “In order to support the claims of political bias, the Pope organization has dug up the voter-registration records of professors and trustees.” The governor, in turn, has spoken out about universities being used to “indoctrinate” students, and the state government has closed academic centers on the environment, voter engagement, and work and poverty, all seen as left-leaning.

In Wisconsin, Governor Scott Walker proposed scrapping the so-called Wisconsin Idea—the cherished principal, enshrined in state law, that the university has a higher public purpose. “Inherent in this broad mission are methods of instruction, research, extended training and public service designed to educate people and improve the human condition,” reads the university’s founding statement. “Basic to every purpose of the system is the search for truth.” Walker sought to replace this with language saying that the university’s goal is to “meet the state’s workforce needs.” After an outcry, he backed away from the changes. The incident, however, revealed some of the ideological animus at work in his enormous $300 million cut to the university’s budget.

It would be a mistake, however, to view the defunding of public education purely in terms of the right’s culture war against the academy as a liberal sinecure. The cuts are too indiscriminate for that, affecting nursing and accounting programs as well as the English department. In an unprecedented move, Arizona even zeroed out funding for the state’s three largest community college districts. More than simply an attack on liberal education, in both senses of the term, it’s an attack on public education.

If there’s an ideological driver here, it’s the conservative obsession with tax cutting. Arizona has been reducing taxes for 20 years, but in 2011 the legislature passed particularly dramatic reductions, including a 30 percent corporate-tax cut that started phasing in last year. It will cost the state $112 million in 2014—more than enough to maintain appropriations to the state’s universities. It’s a similar story elsewhere: In Wisconsin, tax cuts have cost the state nearly $2 billion in revenue over the last four years. In 2012, Kansas passed one of the largest tax cuts ever enacted in any state, then cut rates again in 2013. (Governor Sam Brownback has said he aims to eliminate income taxes entirely.) As a result of these cuts, writes former Kansas budget director Duane Goossen, “Income to the Kansas general fund has fallen so low that it no longer comes close to supporting normal, reasonable expenses, and the bank account is empty.”

By law, most states have to balance their budgets, and when tax revenue falls, raiding higher education is often the easiest way to do that. “Any state budget is Medicaid, prisons, K–12 education, higher education, and roads,” says Kevin Carey, director of the Education Policy Program at the New America Foundation and author of the recent book The End of College: Creating the Future of Learning and the University of Everywhere. “Everything else is kind of a rounding error after that. States have to spend more on Medicaid. They decided to spend more on prisons. Support for K–12 education is broader, and roads is a federal/state matching program. Higher education is structurally weaker.” In other words, if states won’t raise taxes or cut back on mass incarceration, gutting higher education becomes the path of least resistance.

It’s a path that is changing the nature of public colleges and universities in much of the country. Tuition has gone up almost everywhere, and in some places—particularly community colleges and lower-tier four-year schools—class sizes have increased and course offerings have been cut. At flagships like the University of Arizona, however, the effect is more complicated, and in some ways more insidious. Instead of fulfilling their historic mandate to democratize access to elite education for their residents, these schools are relying more heavily on out-of-state students who can pay higher tuition. (In the school year beginning in 2014, in-state tuition at the University of Arizona was about $11,000, while out-of-state tuition was $29,500.) To lure students who can afford to pay that bill, campuses are investing in resort-like amenities, even as they cut academic departments and financial aid. Thus universities meant to ameliorate social inequality are instead exacerbating it.

Research by Ozan Jaquette, an assistant professor of higher education at the University of Arizona, has found a direct relationship between declining state appropriations and the rising number of out-of-state students. He has also found that as out-of-state enrollment rises, the number of black and Hispanic students falls. “If we envision the student body as a pie chart, with various student populations representing slices, the slice of low-income students narrows as the slice of out-of-state students grows, with a greater shift at highly ranked institutions and at institutions in high-poverty states,” he writes in a forthcoming paper in The Journal of Higher Education, coauthored with Bradley R. Curs and Julie R. Posselt.

As this happens, public universities become more and more like private ones. At the University of Wisconsin, for example, out-of-state undergraduate tuition, currently around $25,000, is set to go up $10,000. Right now, the state caps the number of out-of-state students at 27.5 percent, but given recent massive budget cuts, many expect that cap to be lifted, meaning the university will be catering more and more to affluent students.

“It’s raising the cost to the country of educating its younger population,” says Christopher Newfield, a professor of literature and American studies at UC Santa Barbara and the author of Unmaking the Public University: The Forty-Year Assault on the Middle Class. “All the states are now trying to educate the students of other states so they can charge them three times more. The American funding model that we’ve had, it’s broken.” All the private money coming in doesn’t subsidize the public mission of the university. Instead, it undermines it.

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Advertisments for off-campus housing in University of Arizona’s student union.

You can see what that looks like at the University of Arizona, a selective research university near downtown Tucson with a little more than 40,000 students and a few exemplary programs, including top-ranking departments of anthropology and Middle Eastern studies. In the last two years, the school has seen the opening of both an on-campus food pantry and new luxury apartments on the edge of campus with rooftop hot tubs and swimming pools. “I think you’re seeing a massive divide in the socioeconomic status of the state right now,” says Mark Ryan, a first-year law student who is on the board of the food pantry. “What the Capitol is doing right now is, they are making this divide even larger between the middle-class and the lower-income students and the ones who can actually afford to come here and pay full freight. It’s like the Tale of Two Cities.”

For less affluent students, the constant tuition increases can be punishing. “When you’re talking about students who come down here who are on the lower end of the socioeconomic [spectrum] as it is, and you’re taking more of their monthly budget and putting it toward tuition instead of toward food and other areas of subsistence, then it’s going to make it really difficult for them to get educated and sustain themselves,” says Ryan. That, he says, was the impetus for the food pantry: “We were seeing a lot of students—and even a lot of adjunct faculty members—who weren’t able to make ends meet.” Some of them were going to the already overstretched food banks in Tucson, and so “we thought we would create something here,” he says.

Food distributions are biweekly and require a campus ID. In the first year, around 20 people would show up for each one. Now, says Ryan, they’re seeing almost 50—and growing. Blessinger is among those who use the pantry, and when I visited, he was also planning a trip to the Tucson food bank to hold him over until the next distribution on campus.

The campus food pantry is not unique to the University of Arizona. As The Wall Street Journal reported in April, “More than 200 U.S. colleges, mostly public institutions, now operate pantries, and more are on the way, even as the economy rebounds.” (There is even an umbrella group, the College and University Food Bank Alliance, founded in 2012.) The Journal attributes the phenomenon to both rising tuition—up an average of 25 percent at public four-year institutions since 2007—and to the fact that “more students from low-income families are attending college.” That last claim, however, is misleading, since according to the Pew Research Center, the number of low-income high-school graduates who go on to college is down almost 8 percent since 2007. In other words, rising food insecurity on campus can’t be attributed to any sort of increase in social mobility, to more poor people going to school. It’s simply an increase in need.

Walking around the University of Arizona, though, this need is invisible. Indeed, the campus is slick and shiny, and getting more so. As I was on my way to meet Ryan at one of the University of Arizona’s two Starbucks—the second one opened in 2013—I passed a young woman giving a tour to prospective students and their parents. She pointed out the campus Pinkberry, the frozen-yogurt chain’s only Arizona location. The student union looks like a shopping-mall food court, with an Einstein Bros. Bagels, Papa John’s Pizza, Chick-fil-A, and two health-food stands, among other restaurants.

Parts of the campus feel like the sort of resort that caters to kids on spring break. Walking with Blessinger, I visited the recreation center, which was redone in 2009, though without a school ID I wasn’t able to see the outdoor Olympic-size swimming pool. There’s a spa that opened two years ago, where students can get a Swedish, hot-stone, or deep-tissue massage and charge it to their bursar account. Personal trainers are available in the state-of-the-art gym—a five-session package goes for $250—as is private yoga and Pilates instruction. The treadmills have flat-screen TVs attached. “It’s like a hoity-toity LA Fitness,” says Blessinger.

These amenities are actually modest compared to many public schools nationwide. As The New York Times reported last year, in the “university recreation center arms race…the latest thing is to turn a piece of campus into something approaching a water theme park.” Schools, said the Times, justify these projects as necessary for recruitment: “Classrooms can look alike, but pools are a memorable tour stop for prospective students, especially, say, at the University of Missouri, where guides show off the indoor beach club’s palm trees, lazy river and waterfall, and coyly announce that the grotto was modeled after the one at the Playboy Mansion.”

Dorms are getting more posh as well, at least for those who can pay. Across from the University of Arizona’s recreation center is Likins, one of the school’s “tier one” dorms. Built in 2011, it’s arrayed around a central courtyard and has common areas that are flooded with light from floor-to-ceiling windows. A bed in a double room goes for $7,870 for the academic year, compared with $5,670 for a bed in one of the school’s older, shabbier dorms.


The Hub, an apartment tower marketed to wealthy students, features a 22-foot outdoor LED television. A one- bedroom apartment rents for as much as $1,640 per month.

Even the fancy new dorms, however, seem spartan compared to the three new luxury apartment towers that have gone up on the edge of campus within the last two years. Next, Level, and the Hub aren’t run by the school, but they cater exclusively to students, with study areas and roommate-matching services. I took a tour of Level, which was completed last year. The rent ranges from $750 a month for a room in a five-bedroom, three-bathroom group apartment to $1,600 a month for a one-bedroom. They come complete with stainless-steel appliances, trendy Scandinavian-style furniture—barstools in the kitchen, a sleek gray couch and bright-green chair in the living room—and 42-inch flat-screen TVs. Most units have balconies, and there’s a gym and a yoga studio.

Level’s real attraction, though, is the rooftop infinity pool with a stunning 360-degree view of the surrounding desert and mountains, along with a hot tub and a shallow sunbathing pool, for when “you need to just lie in the water but you don’t want to go swimming,” in the words of my guide. There are grills, fire pits, and lots of seating. “Games days up here, it’s awesome,” says my guide. “We have a lot of people barbecuing up here, hanging out, jumping in the pool.”

Like on-campus food pantries, off-campus student luxury housing is a national trend. As The New York Times reported in 2013, “The spas, tanning salons and sprawling pools offered by these complexes, which often require their tenants to be students, are a far cry from the traditional on-campus residence halls that may house classrooms and faculty and host lectures and academic discussions.”

Many of the participants in this relentless campus upscaling are private businesses, but it’s driven by public policy. Like other campuses, the University of Arizona is not getting fancier in spite of budget cuts; it’s getting fancier because of them. From 2002 to 2013, state appropriations shrank from $420 million to $270 million. Over the same period, the amount raised from student tuition grew from $179 million to $455 million. As at other schools, cuts in public financing have made the university more reliant on tuition—out-of-state tuition in particular. Over the last decade, the number of out-of-state students has been creeping up, from around 32 percent in 2004 to between 37 and 39 percent in recent years.

“If there’s very low levels of public investment, state or federal investment, you have to rely on tuition,” says University of Michigan sociologist Elizabeth Armstrong, the coauthor with Laura Hamilton of the 2013 book Paying for the Party: How College Maintains Inequality. “If you have to rely on tuition, you need to serve the people who pay the tuition, and given the cost of college, the people who can actually pay that money tend to be from quite affluent families, which puts universities into a position of trying to meet the wants, if not exactly needs, of the most well-heeled of their clientele.”

Recruiters from the university, says Blessinger, “go out to California, Colorado, New Mexico, Chicago to get these higher-middle-class, high-SES [socioeconomic status] students, who can afford to come to school here and pay ridiculous out-of-state tuition costs. And if you drive 10 minutes south of campus, in south Tucson, which is a low-SES neighborhood—I coached basketball at Flowing Wells High School, and a lot of those kids are being priced out of school.”


The luxury apartment building Next offers students a rooftop pool, hot tub, yoga studio, tanning salon, and steam room.

Less privileged students who manage to enroll suffer as well. Armstrong’s widely lauded book showed how a campus culture geared toward wealthy students can set others up to fail. In Paying for the Party, she and Hamilton followed the residents of a women’s floor at a flagship Midwestern university from their freshman year in 2004 through graduation and beyond. Women from modest backgrounds, they found, rarely moved up the class hierarchy as a result of their time at the university, and some ended up in worse financial shape than when they began. Some were shunned by their wealthier peers, which weakened their commitment to staying in school. Others tried to participate in the school’s Greek-dominated social scene, without understanding that only those with parental resources can afford to treat college as a multiyear party. Rich kids with middling grades had parents to find them entry-level jobs in glamour industries and subsidize them while they worked there. But without family privilege to fall back on, poorer students who failed to distinguish themselves academically saw their futures blighted.

Before Paying for the Party, says Armstrong, “there was a lot of attention in the higher-education literature about access—if we just solved the problem of access, then things would be good—without paying a lot of attention to the fact that the climate on campus is shaped by the composition of the students who are there. If you have the vast majority of students from very affluent families, and only a small number of students from disadvantaged families, that’s going to influence the experience of the disadvantaged students.”

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Providing luxury accommodations to attract high-SES students is not the only answer to budget cuts. Schools can also simply try to educate more people, taking advantage of economies of scale. That’s what Arizona State University, one of the largest public universities in the country, is doing. Located in Phoenix, just over 100 miles from the University of Arizona, the school touts itself as a model of public/private fusion; the new book written by its president, Michael Crow, and ASU professor William Dabars is titled Designing the New American University.

Crow and Dabars write that cuts in state funding to ASU since 2008 “represented the largest sum both in absolute dollars and as a percentage of general funds from legislative appropriations for any public university in the nation, and to our knowledge in the history of American higher education.” In the face of this defunding, ASU increased revenues by bringing in many more students. Since 2002, when Crow joined ASU, undergraduate enrollment has risen by nearly 50 percent and graduate enrollment by 39 percent. The school has made headlines for the expansion of its online-education program, which enrolls 13,000. Last year, ASU announced a partnership with Starbucks, in which the company would reimburse employees for their tuition at ASU online; so far, 2,000 workers have signed up. In April, the university unveiled its new “Global Freshman Academy,” a group of 12 MOOCs, or massive open online courses. Students pay $45 to register and can wait until after final exams before deciding whether to pay tuition and receive course credits, ensuring they won’t be in debt if they’re not academically successful. Anyone who completes eight classes can enter ASU as a sophomore.

Many things about the ASU model will make the typical Nation reader blanch. Crow is almost the Platonic ideal of technocratic centrism. His book, which comes with blurbs from Bill Clinton, Jeb Bush, and the Gates Foundation, has something of the flavor of Tom Friedman giving a talk at the Aspen Institute: “While the reconceptualization of ASU represents the pioneering of a foundational prototype for a New American University, more broadly, the ‘design process’ undertaken during the past decade constitutes a recasting of the American research university as a complex and adaptive comprehensive knowledge enterprise committed to discovery, creativity, and innovation, accessible to the broadest possible demographic, both socioeconomically and intellectually.”

Yet if you strip away the grating corporate speak, Crow is serious when he talks about expanding access. He rails against the “elitism” of top-tier American colleges and universities, writing that their “exclusivity suggests nothing so much as the persistence in American higher education of the class prerogatives historically associated with the social patterns of Britain.” Crow is rightfully proud of the fact that under his leadership, his school’s student body has come to reflect the demographics of the state. Between 2002 and 2013, the number of African-American students at ASU grew by 107 percent, and the number of Hispanic students grew by more than 130 percent. Over the same time period, the number of students coming from families earning less than $20,000 increased from 219 to 919.

“One of the things that sounds like a sound bite, but I’ve actually witnessed it: We’re making all these inroads in populations that are not privileged,” says Mark Lussier, chair of ASU’s English department. Recently, he says, he was speaking to someone at the University of Michigan, who insisted: “‘You can’t have access and excellence. You just can’t. It’s impossible.’ But I think the evidence is there that this is the sort of model that can work. Whether it can work in all states, all stripes, I don’t know. I do think it’s a pretty good model for here. Most people think of scale as a problem, but actually I think it’s been beneficial to us.”

Ultimately, though, even the most innovative, entrepreneurial, and public-minded campus leadership can only do so much in the face of government austerity. Crow has spoken out about the effect of the most recent round of cuts, saying their consequences “will be felt not only by Arizona’s institutions of higher education, but also by the students whom we serve.” Tuition at ASU has gone up, just like tuition at the University of Arizona; for state residents, it’s only about $1,000 cheaper. Crow recently told a student forum that out-of-state tuition will likely increase, and in-state tuition may go up as well.

MOOCs will only do so much to help students evade these prices. For a student taking three classes a semester, online tuition is around $9,000 a year. The Global Freshman Academy is cheaper, but not cheap—tuition still runs over $6,000 a year, and federal financial aid won’t cover it, because regulations prohibit aid from being used to evaluate work that’s already been completed.

Besides, taking courses online is simply not the same thing as going to college. For one thing, students generally don’t fare as well academically. A recent study from UC Davis found that students in online community colleges have lower grades and lower completion rates than those attending face-to-face classes. And students miss out on crucial relationships, both with their peers and their professors. Newfield speaks of his parents, both first-generation students at public schools. “The thing about college, and not just taking particular skill courses, is that it completely changed their sense of human possibility,” he says. That requires a rich, immersive pedagogical process, and it costs money. “Instead, we’re just screwing around with all these little nickel-and-dime solutions, piecemeal things—we can get 5 percent of our students to take an online course and cut our budget by two and a half percent.”

Newfield is actually a fan of Crow, particularly his commitment to egalitarianism. He is, says Newfield, “a much better, much more inspiring leader than the heads of most public universities. He’s really in kind of a class by himself.” Yet he’s not convinced that Crow—or anyone else—can create a world-class university that educates people on a mass scale without serious public investment. “He evades a lot of basic questions of how you can square the circle of raising your costs with high-status research funding while giving all these new students that he’s brought in individual attention,” says Newfield. “It doesn’t add up to me.”

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Ultimately, Arizona shows two ways that universities can respond to government defunding. They can become country clubs, or they can become “knowledge enterprises” that rely on the Internet to deliver education to enormous, geographically diffuse student bodies. Either way, the gap between the type of education available to children from affluent families and that offered to everyone else is going to grow. There was a moment in American history, says Newfield, when “the kind of thing that the Bush family could take for granted at Yale became possible at U. Michigan for somebody whose father was a middle manager.” That moment is over.

Now, even students who are willing to shoulder seemingly crushing workloads are unsure if they can ever ascend into the middle class. Consider Sarah Netherton, 29, the incoming president of the Graduate and Professional Student Council at the University of Arizona. A divorced mother of two, she’d finished her undergraduate degree online, but couldn’t find a job that paid more than minimum wage. So she decided to return to school to become a nurse-practitioner, even though it’s a struggle as a single parent. “I do 12-hour shifts at a hospital, and there is no daycare that is open 12 hours,” she says. By the time she graduates, she will owe over $100,000 in student loans.

Earlier in the year, she met with Republican legislators in Phoenix to try to explain what a tuition and fee increase would mean for her family. Like Blessinger, she found them unresponsive and felt that they treated her dismissively. “I don’t think they have an accurate perception of what graduate school is like,” Netherton says. “They said, ‘You’re going to benefit yourself. Why did you have to go to graduate school?’” It was as if she was demanding privileges that she had no right to. Speaking of her fellow graduate students, she says, “Very few of us are going to be rich and famous. Hopefully, we’re going to hit middle class.” Hopefully.