I hear lots of folks talking about “our failing public education system” these days, and as a student of education there aren’t many conservative “talking points” that bother me more than this one. While much of this rhetoric lately has focused on the K-12 school reopening “debate”, the pandemic has also cast a bright light on the problems facing higher education–specifically, in public colleges and universities.
And social conservatives have been only too happy to jump head first into the fray, smelling blood in the water at one of their favorite punching bags–the “educated liberal elite” of the college educated voter base.
So what are these problems, and where did they come from?
- Since around the 1980s, funding for higher education in our country has “flipped”;
- In 1979, the ratio of state aid vs. tuition was 70/30–that is to say that state and federal aid amounted to roughly 70% of the cost of attending a state college or university, with around 30% being paid for by families in tuition/room & board payments.
- By 2014 the ratio had flipped to 20/70–20% in government support for higher education, and families now responsible for picking up around 70% of the cost of college attendance.
- This “flip” has shifted the burden for public universities from the public to individual students and families…and has led to an unprecedented student loan debt crisis.
- At the same time, costs for higher ed have exploded…
- The much higher costs associated with state and federal accountability and accreditation requirements led to a massive expansion of administrative and “alt ac” (i.e., alternative academic) positions at universities, and has added greatly to higher education costs.
And it’s worse in Michigan…
- While the states have slashed their contributions to education funding to historic levels, in Michigan, the home of Betsy DeVos, a more than $1 billion dollar reduction in inflation-adjusted state higher education and student aid funding has occurred since 2002.
- The result? Today, the fiscal burden has shifted dramatically to students and families, who now provide a full 71 percent of institutional general fund dollars.
- From fiscal years 2010 through 2015, average state fiscal support for all postsecondary education nationally rose 9.6 percent, whereas in Michigan funding during the same period was reduced by 2.9 percent.
- In MI, 2017 funding for higher education was below 2011 levels–we are moving backwards.
- With a greater burden on students and families due to tuition increases, universities have tried to alleviate those costs through financial aid.
- Students from the bottom 20% need that financial aid a lot more than students from the top 20%.
- Republicans in the Michigan State legislature cut higher education funding 15% in 2012 alone—while refusing to remove tuition caps that allow schools to raise more revenues–creating a financial game of “chicken” that no one wins.
Where does this leave us?
- The average state is now spending 20 percent less per student than it did at the start of the recession in 2008.
- Much of this change has been fueled by tension between two diametrically opposing views of education:
- The Liberal view is that higher education in the U.S. is a public good to be supported by society.
- The counter narrative—backed by conservative think tanks and “education reformers”—is that college education is a cost to be shouldered primarily by individual degree-earners and private entities (who will presumably benefit in the long run).
- Because of income inequality, the rising cost of public university attendance has affected the poor disproportionately—increasing student debt to historic levels, and further stratifying the population by level of educational attainment as well as income and socio-economic status.
The “Bottom Line”: When education becomes a commodity, the wealthy will have better access to it, and simply put, more of it.