If the American Public Values the College Experience, We Should Fund It

If the American Public Values the College Experience, We Should Fund It April 21, 2020

I’m out of the academic game for now, but I see a lot of people lamenting that college won’t ever be the same again – and I just keep wondering, were you not paying attention while public funding for it was dropping?!

Photo by Baim Hanif from Unsplash. In public domain.

College has been an iconic rite of passage for many Americans for generations now: a time of intellectual exploration, maturation, living away from home, and so on. Obviously there are many different college experiences – community colleges and commuter schools look quite different than Ivy Leagues – but the common denominator is that within the cultural imagination, college is something that many of our young (and not-so-young!) people do for 4ish years to grow, learn, and become educated citizens.

Multiple coming-of-age stories are set at college, and the fascination with school-as-story-setting fuels pop culture narratives such as The Magicians and Community or, if we’re considering the schools for younger folks that still have the live-away-from-home experience, things like Harry Potter as well (not to mention classic high school films ranging from Grease to Ferris Bueller’s Day Off to Clueless).

Hence, it’s understandable that with the social changes wrought by COVID-19, people will be mourning the lack of access to a “traditional” college experience (even if the experience was never as accessible or as inclusive as many believed it to be; indeed, the pandemic is revealing staggering inequities in higher ed, as explained in this PBS piece where interviewed students struggle with housing and broadband access to complete their coursework remotely).

I’m already seeing pieces like this Politico one, ‘We’re on the edge of the precipice’: How the pandemic could shatter college dreams, and I’m expecting to see more. The author opens the piece with:

The pandemic and the nation’s brutal economic collapse are combining to crush the college hopes of low-income and first-generation students.

Some high school seniors are dropping their first-choice schools in favor of colleges that are cheaper and closer to home, early surveys have found. Others are thinking about going part-time, or taking a gap year so they can work and bail out families whose breadwinners are suddenly out of work. Those who work with low-income students worry freshmen from poor families who were sent home this semester may never return and high school seniors won’t get the hands-on help they need with their financial aid applications.

And, yes, this is all true, and quite sad. And it rests on the assumption that college bestows something of value – something experiential, plus a financial boost into better job opportunities – and that’s what I want to talk more about here.

My response to seeing these kinds of pieces is, of course, sadness (because I too had a good college experience, and went on to grad school, and have spent my entire career in higher education) but also weary cynicism. Because the story we tell ourselves about higher ed and the way we actually fund it are two quite different things.

This excellent piece from the Chronicle of Higher Education outlines precisely how higher education expanded and became more accessible after the Great Depression and WWII. As explained here, the time during and after WWII was crucial for expanding access to college and the resources that colleges had access to:

[Colleges] were hammered in the sense that their primarily male enrollments were reduced drastically [due to the draft]. But it actually ended up being a good resolution: Campuses became the site for providing housing and facilities, for all kinds of instructional programs, for officer training, for flight schools, for very advanced three-month courses, primarily for officers. And meanwhile, the enrollment of female students increased during World War II. By the start of World War II, war production saved the economy, but people didn’t have anything to spend it on. You could buy a tank, but you couldn’t buy a Chevrolet. So colleges did OK.

Colleges and universities were very good partners with the military and the federal government, and for the first time, the federal government looked to academic professors to do war-related research. There is a legendary photograph of the deserted University of Chicago football stadium. Chicago dropped football in 1939, but the locker rooms underneath the stadium became labs for the Manhattan Project. You had these physicists, chemists, mathematicians, all in the secret lab.

A lot of esoteric fields suddenly were in demand. For example, a professor of Asian languages in the 1930s probably had a handful of students. But suddenly, with World War II, the military needed people who could speak and translate Japanese.

The military and the federal bureaucracy were just amazed at how responsive and resourceful the scientists and other professors were. After colleges provided valuable space and services to the war effort, the gratitude of Congress and the military for that academic work led to the creation of the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health. The logic was, if university researchers can do this well in terms of solving wartime problems, why not harness them in terms of the domestic economy and then the Cold War? It was a very compelling rationale.

The relationship between education and industry, and education and the Cold War, is of course complex (and bizarrely at odds with the threads of anti-intellectualism that have coexisted in the U.S. for a dishearteningly long time), plus I dislike the assumption that education exists only to prepare people for their career, to be good little worker bees under capitalism. Anyway. But now I’m going to speak to the issue of federal and state funding. Because while the university experience retains a high position in the American cultural imagination, our spending has not matched that position of value.

As stated by the Pew Trust, “States and the federal government have long provided substantial financial support for higher education, but in recent years, their respective levels of contribution have shifted significantly. State spending especially has fallen, and has not recovered to match pre-2007 spending levels.”

The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities puts it this way: “As states have slashed higher education funding, the price of attending public colleges has risen significantly faster than what families can afford. For the average student, increases in federal student aid and the availability of tax credits have not kept up, jeopardizing the ability of many to afford the college education that is key to their long-term financial success.”

Why does this matter? Well, accessibility, for one thing; with less state funding coming in, tuition has been raised, making college less accessible to low-income and first-generation college students. And one of the cruel tricks here is that the narrative hasn’t shifted even as the reality has, so many folks still expect to be able to afford college and hope to prioritize it, even as it slips from their grasp, or demands excessive student borrowing.

This has a negative effect on the quality of the education and the sustainability of higher ed careers (for people like me) too. To quote the Center on Budget again:

Tuition increases, while substantial in most states, have fallen far short nationally of fully replacing the per-student support that public colleges and universities have lost due to state funding cuts.  In nearly half of the states, tuition increases between 2008 and 2016 have not fully offset cuts to state higher education funding.

Because of this fact, and because most public schools lack significant endowments or other funding sources, many public colleges and universities have simultaneously reduced course offerings, student services, and other campus amenities over the years.

So the rub of it is that students are paying more for less, and faculty are also not getting paid enough, or being retained, or being granted fair wages in the first place (as is the case for so many adjuncts and contingent workers). This is a major reason why, with colleges predicting major income shortfalls this year and next, there are so many teachers being furloughed or let go; there aren’t many more areas where colleges can trim costs (or will agree to trim costs – I’m not sure how many administrators are agreeing to take paycheck cuts) since we’ve already been running on tight budgets to account for the lack of state funding.

One of the worst aspects of this situation is that many Americans are ignorant of it. According to the APM Research Lab: “34% of U.S. adults think government funding for public colleges and universities has stayed the same over the past decade, while 27% think it has increased.” The State Higher Education Executive Officers Association, quoted in a PBS piece, commented that “Ten years ago, students and their families paid for about a third of university operating costs…Now they pay for nearly half.”

Americans who were polled are aware of rising tuition costs and how those are somewhat disproportionate to what they should be; APM found that “44% of U.S. adults think government aid for college and universities has fallen behind the price of tuition.” And according to the PBS piece, some confusion about where the money comes from and goes might be warranted: “Americans may think states have continued to spend money on higher education because they see some universities with multibillion-dollar endowments, or that seem to be on building sprees or paying multimillion-dollar salaries to coaches, advocates said.”

The reality, though, is that many colleges were underfunded before the pandemic hit. And the changes being enacted now are hurting many instructors and students who were already among the most vulnerable. This is unfortunately the way things seem to go in the U.S., with the most marginalized being thrown under the bus first, but I really wish that more Americans would become aware of how much state funding colleges have lost in the last decade, and how negatively this impacts the ability of faculty and staff to deliver a good (or any) education to students from a range of backgrounds.

Because at the end of the day, educators and students are at the heart of the university system, as well as the staff who support both groups. And while the American public has become aware of the burden students bear through rising tuition costs and loans, I would love to see the public put its money where its mouth is by applying pressure for both state and federal levels to pay more into education.

Valuing the story appeal of higher ed, and the rite of passage of going away to college, while we devalue it financially (and devalue the labor of its educators and staff, and devalue the struggles of students thrown into crisis by the pandemic who were already struggling due to systemic inequalities) is pure hypocrisy, and I think we owe it to one another to do better.


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