Christopher Newfield, a professor of literature and American studies at the University of California at Santa Barbara, gave a talk at SMU last week about his recent book: The Great Mistake: How we wrecked public universities and how we can fix them. In it, he identifies an eight-step vicious cycle (the Devolutionary Cycle p.36) that he thinks has contributed to the decline of public universities:
(1) University retreats from public goods. (2) Subsidizing outside sponsors. (3) Large, regular tuition hikes. (4) Cuts to public funding. (5) Increased student debt, college as burden. (6) Private vendors leverage public funds. (7) Unequal funding cuts attainment. (8) Post-productivity capitalism.
He then puts forward an eight-step virtuous circle (the Recovery Cycle p.310) to reconstruct the public university:
(1) University recognized as public good. (2) Subsidies to partners reduced or ended. (3) Tuition is capped and reduced toward zero. (4) Public funding is reset to replace tuition. (5) Student debt is reduced to zero. (6) Universities retain core educational functions as nonprofit. (7) Equal and higher overall learning across race/class. (8) Creative capabilities pressure productivity wage.
As much as I like the idea of universities being recognized as public goods again, obviously the Recovery Cycle involves substantial amounts of optimistic thinking, but it most misses the mark with the first step that is supposed to launch it all, the fact that universities should be recognized as public good again, as if this could be done in a vacuum and wouldn't involve the very people, at the highest levels of state and federal power, who have decided to push for the rebranding of higher education as a private good. The movie Starving the Beast (2016) has provided a compelling picture of the ideological shift that underlies the funding trends for public higher education. (I discussed that movie here.) Some humanities professors in the audience at SMU also felt the decrease in funding for universities could be attributed to conservatives donors having taken a dislike to supposedly hotbeds of liberal-leaning ideas.
I have a different take on the topic. In this age of massive and growing inequalities, I wonder if the funding shifts can be explained by (broadly speaking) people in power eager to help children of the ruling class acquire their own power by diminishing the value of their competitors. I'm not convinced that the people who have been cutting funding to higher ed care about ideas that much, whether conservative ideas or liberal ones. On the other hand, I readily believe they care about money, especially money that flows directly and easily to them and their families. Children of people in power tend not to go to public universities, because the ability to afford private tuition is a status symbol. If public universities are starved for funding, the wealthy donors' children won't face as much competition when they apply for jobs. Diminishing the value of public higher education is a way for wealthy people to narrow the playing field so that only recent grads from private universities like their children will be considered for top positions.
This is obviously terribly misguided, but whether universities are a public good or not misses the mark. The point is that public higher education provides a crucial competitive advantage to states trying to attract companies to move there. The Dallas-Fort Worth area in Texas, for instance, has been exceedingly successful in convincing companies to move their headquarters there, and with good reason: the DFW area is an astonishingly good place to live, and is so even without the Texas-sized tax incentives those companies must have received to make the move. Yet, the public education system in Texas is subpar. (Texas is ranked 43rd in the nation in education quality.)
In Dallas, the wealthy enclave around SMU, known as University Park, has its own school district and police force. Families flock there to provide their children with stellar public education at decent price (the property taxes in University Park are very high and the parcels of land very small, but this shows even Texans are perfectly willing to pay taxes when they can benefit from said taxes directly and immediately. Having taxes benefit other people is another problem.) The Dallas ISD has such a bad reputation among people I know that I was surprised to learn it has a B rating when I researched this blog post. Maybe there is grade inflation among school districts too. If you're going to send your kids to public school and can't afford University Park, it may be better to consider Plano or Richardson instead.
But higher education is a critical component to develop and maintain the workforce that Texas needs to fulfill the needs of the companies it has managed to attract. Hence it should be viewed as a competitive advantage, as deserving of massive investment as those companies leaving California are of tax breaks. Saying that higher education is a public good makes it sound like the government's funding of public universities is the "nice" thing to do. But funding higher education isn't "nice". It's good business sense while U.S. states vie for the same big companies.