March 16, 2018

Assault on Public Higher Education | From the Bell Tower

There’s been considerable debate lately on whether everyone needs to go to college. If funding trends stay the same or worsen, it may not matter. Only the elite will be able to afford it.

America’s system of interstate highways is vitally important to our national economy, and it allows all of us the freedom to travel conveniently to our destinations. Highway systems are in need of constant maintenance, particularly the bridges, and this requires large sums of taxpayer money or tolls. As the federal government has cut transportation funding to the states, and the states are suffering from declining revenues, the highway system falls into an ever greater state of disrepair. For some states the solution is privatization: Simply take a public good and turn it over to investors, who are then free to collect even higher tolls. While few politicians have explicitly stated that a similar approach would solve what ails underfunded public colleges and universities, there is an implicit movement at the state level that would deliver the same results – with catastrophic implications for the next generation of students.

This is not right

The value of public higher education is fundamental to advancing the economic well-being of this country and its citizens. American higher education began as an elitist good, with only the well-to-do having access to the predecessors of today’s Ivy League universities. Since those colonial days, efforts to democratize higher education, from the Morrill Land Grant Acts to the G.I. Bill, have sought to create opportunities for an advanced education to the masses. State-funded higher education was designed to keep tuition affordable for the middle-class. Would it shock you to learn that in 2012, Harvard, Princeton and their peers are now more affordable than many public universities are for the middle class? What happened? According to a report that appeared in the San Jose Mercury News  a family of four — married parents, a high-school senior and a 14-year-old child — making $130,000 a year would expect to pay nearly $24,000 for a Cal State freshman’s tuition, on-campus room and board, supplies and other expenses. At Harvard? Just $17,000, even though its stated annual tuition is $36,305. [note: this Cal State administrator disputes these claims and offers different facts] While these institutions can tap endowments to subsidize their tuitions, tuition in the U.S. rose by 94 percent at public four-year colleges between 1997 and 2007, but only by 22 percent at private nonprofit four-year colleges. It’s a great deal if you can get into Harvard or Princeton, but what about all the other students?

Trends in funding

Public universities are struggling to maintain their state funding. California is the poster child for the seriousness of this problem. There’s a steady stream of news about the state’s  budget cuts, and its impact on public higher education, from the prestigious University of California system right down to every community college in the state. The latest Grapevine Study, which tracks annual state funding for higher education, provided strong evidence of a serious funding problem. Spending declined by approximately $6 billion, or nearly 8 percent, across nearly every state. I took a closer look at the report for my own state. In FY 2006-2007 higher education received $2.1 billion. For FY 2011-2012 that is expected to drop to $1.8 billion. Here’s another way to look at it. When I was a student at a state-funded university in the mid-1970s, 75 percent of the funding came from the state. On average, in 2011, the percent of state funding has dropped to just under 20 percent. From state-supported, to state-related, to state-located, indeed.  What’s truly ironic is that as the federal and state governments are diverting taxpayer money away from public universities, a for-profit institution such as Kaplan University reports getting some 91.5 percent of its income from federal student aid, including Pell grants, Stafford loans and aid for veterans – all funded by taxpayers.

Crippling a state system

Let’s use Pennsylvania as an example of what’s happening to public higher education. There is a state system of higher education made up of 14 institutions spread across the state. Those institutions receive the bulk of state funding and, outside of the community colleges, offer the lowest tuition. Even so, tuition in Pennsylvania has always exceeded the bargain tuition available in Florida or California – but it’s still comparatively affordable, in the range of $10,000 – $12,000 a year. There are also four “state-related” institutions, among them my own institution, plus Penn State and the University of Pittsburgh. While state funding had gradually declined over the years, tuition is still affordable. Since a Republican governor, of the no-taxation pledge type, took office, the public universities have experienced multiple-year cuts. This year the proposed budget calls for cuts up to 30 percent, which would be devastating. Now, a Republican representative who leads the budget committee appears to be balking at making further cuts to higher education. No one knows for sure what will happen, but many believe this is all just another inevitable step to the end of state funding for higher education.

It will hit home

As their budgets are further whittled away, the erosion of funding to public universities will take its eventual toll on the libraries at these institutions. As we eliminate staff positions, cancel journals and reduce book purchases, the ability to deliver quality service and provide access to desired content is progressively diminished. We will ask what services and projects are less important, and will stop doing them.

We can only wonder if at some point there will be a reversal of this trend, perhaps when the economy is once again healthy. Robert Reich, now a professor at UC Berkeley, shared his concerns about what is happening to funding for public universities in this essay, and he concludes that “A big part of the answer has to be more government support for public education at all levels. This requires more tax revenues – especially from Americans who are best able to pay. Most Americans still believe in the ideal of equal opportunity. And most harbor the patriotic notion that we have responsibilities to one another as members of the same society.”

A keen observation, but many states are under the control of governors who are loathe to raise taxes, and it is simply easier to target for drastic cuts those services that lack powerful lobbyists. If one is more cynical, it is possible to believe, as Paul Krugman suggests, that Republican-led governments have an ulterior motive in privatizing higher education. As he put it “What you don’t know doesn’t hurt them.” Is it possible there is intent to deny the masses access to higher education in order to keep them ignorant and less able to question their leaders? That sounds a bit like a conspiracy theory, and some Republican governors are actually increasing funding for higher education. Whatever you believe, there is no denying that public higher education is currently under siege. Despite that, many faculty and staff strongly believe in the value of public higher education. What none of us knows is whether we’ll still have affordable institutions where we can practice those beliefs.

Steven Bell About Steven Bell

Steven Bell, Associate University Librarian, Temple University, Philadelphia, PA, is the current vice president/president-elect of ACRL. For more from Steven visit his blogs, Kept-Up Academic Librarian, ACRLog and Designing Better Libraries or visit his website.



  1. Shannon Croteau says:

    What you are saying in this piece is what I have been saying for over 3years against Kaplan University. I have tried working with big names in the senate and they all go deaf. These for profit schools are bad news and they are getting arrogant by admitting they are partially funded by tax payers. I am sick of being ignored by our politicians. If I forget to pay my taxes see how fast they learn my name. Excellent article.

  2. eminencefront says:

    There needn’t be a cabal of evil tycoons cackling over brandy and cigars in a secret room to make a conspiracy, but the end result is the same. Krugman is exactly correct that public ignorance – or, rather, the continuous baiting of the public with anti-tax, anti-government narratives – plays into the hands (and pockets) of the 1%. But it’s also about control. The ideal for conservative politicians is to exert total control over education at all levels, while paying for almost none of it. They are very close to achieving this in many states. If teachers object, they vilify teachers as lazy unionized socialists. If faculty object, well, everyone knows they’re atheists and communists out to indoctrinate your kids, right? They don’t need their own conspiracy when they’re busy spinning everyone else into conspiracies.

    The question will ultimately be, what will universities do when the last tax dollars dry up? This will happen within 20 years, in most states. Will these schools actually find themselves free to ignore political extortion and go independent at last? Or will laws keep them shackled to reactionary legislatures forever? Either way, people having kids today will look back on today’s college costs as an unimaginable golden age of affordability. And the anti-knowledge economy that will replace today’s knowledge economy is going to be a much poorer, rougher, sadder place for our children.

    • The concern over ever decreasing government funding to educational insitutions period is not restricted to America frighteningly enough. What did amuse me about Steven’s blog was hisreference to Krugman writing that ” Most Americans still believe in the ideal of equal opportunity. And most harbor the patriotic notion that we have responsibilities to one another as members of the same society.” Well that’s just words describing what was probably always an empty sentiment and like the saying goes, actions speak louder than that and those actions have created the current situation.

      Ah the furphy that is equal opportunity. Yuh… and middle and lower classes paying higher taxes than the billionaires is a fine example of that notion in the same way that the desire to pay as little tax as possible shows an ongoing belief in one’s responsibility for one’s fellow citizens. Most of us can blame ourselves for the financial situation we find ourselves in be that in USA, UK, Australia etc. because every time we hear tax cut we react like shortsighted, dense and greedy little toads.

  3. Milan Moravec says:

    Assault on higher education by University of California campus chancellor, It’s an insult to taxpayers who help support the university system and to the students confronting soaring costs. UC Berkeley Chancellor Birgeneau picks the pockets of Californian students and their parents clean. Birgeneau’s tuition/fee increases rank Cal. # 1 most expensive (on all-in-cost) public university. UC Berkeley is more expensive than Harvard, Yale.

    UC Berkeley Birgeneau ($450,000 salary) has forgotten he is a public servant, steward of the public money, not overseer of his own fiefdom. Pays ex-politician $300,000 for several lectures; Tuition fee increases exceed national average rate of increase; Recruits (using California tax $) foreign & out of state affluent $50,600 tuition students who displace Cal. qualified instate applicants; Spends $7,000,000 + (prominent East Coast university accomplishing same at 0 cost) for OE consultants to accomplish senior management work and stonewalls consultants from examining Chancellor office: When procuring OE consultants failed to receive alternative proposals; Tuition to Return on Investment drops below top 10; QS academic ranking falls below top 10.

    In tough economic times, unpleasant decisions must be made. UC Board of Regents Chair Lansing must oust Chancellor Birgeneau
    Email opinion to
    (The author has 35 years’ consulting, has taught at Cal where he observed the culture & ways of senior management & was not fired)

  4. Sheryl Kron Rhodes says:

    I attended Penn State as an out-of-state student 1981-1985. Tuition for me, even at out-of-state rates, was cheaper than tuition to attend Syracuse as an in-state student. Now? Doubtful.

  5. Robert Birgenau, of UC, was briefly at U Toronto while I worked there. He was abysmal there too.
    Then I moved to Boston, and heard about his time at MIT. I could never figure out how this guy keeps getting hired.