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Higher education funding faces a perfect storm

If we can’t solve this crisis, we could lose an engine for equality in Washington



(June 9, 2020) — From 2008 to 2012, during the recession that now seems more quaint than great, Washington state slashed appropriations to public higher education. This only accelerated a process of privatization. Following a trend that had been consistent since at least the early 1980s, state universities raised tuition between 60 percent and 80 percent over four years and went on their merry way. Overall university budgets were actually affected very little, but the cost of public higher education was shifted more and more to students and their families.

This time, the full bill for a house-of-cards public higher ed funding scheme will be coming due. Funding for public universities comes in three buckets — state appropriations, tuition, and self-supporting auxiliaries like dorms and dining halls. All three of those buckets are about to become dumpster fires.

The need to shut down the economy has shriveled state tax receipts and whenever the inevitable legislative special session comes, the temptation to make deep cuts to universities will be great.

Raising tuition, even if we were willing to overlook the ethical problem of making public education more expensive when people are losing their jobs in droves, is not an option. In fact, universities will be lucky to convince students to pay the current price. The COVID-19 pandemic has driven all education temporarily online. Teachers and professors all over the state have worked heroically to move their courses on a dime to Zoom and Canvas. And, while those courses continue to be high quality, our students have discovered what faculty have known all along—online college isn’t as good as real college. With all due respect to the bankers and quasi-non-profit evangelists who have spent millions trying to convince us that the future of education is people in their pajamas in front of a computer screen, our students aren’t buying what you’re selling. Polls are showing that if we’re still mostly online in the fall (and the stubborn science suggests we’re going to be), up to 20 percent of our students won’t return. With half of university budgets coming from tuition, this drop in enrollment will have a huge impact.

If all that isn’t bad enough, public universities are also facing a third financial crisis they haven’t faced before. When the pandemic hit, we sent our students home with housing and meal plan refunds in their pockets. The state provides no funding for student housing, so both the building and operating of residence halls have to pay for themselves. Dorms are built with debt—Washington’s six public universities have billions of dollars in bonds. Empty dorms and dining halls mean no revenue to pay hundreds of millions of dollars in interest and the bond market doesn’t like to wait for its money.

So this time is shaping up to be a perfect financial storm for public universities, both in Washington and across the country. Some won’t survive and many of those that do will emerge as hollow shells of what they should be.

Here on the eve of that destruction, we should pause to reflect on what we could be losing.

Ronald Reagan, when he was governor of California, was one of the first instigators of the defunding of public higher education, arguing that the state should not “subsidize intellectual curiosity.” As the events of the last couple of weeks have reminded us, he couldn’t have been more wrong.

From the 1920s to near the end of the 1970s, state and federal governments invested massively in the public higher education they’ve allowed to crumble over the last 40 years. The gray-haired among us can still remember a time when regular people could pay nominal fees to go to school in Bellingham, Cheney, Ellensburg, Olympia, Pullman or Seattle and get essentially the same education that rich people got at fancy private schools. Higher ed was the engine of U.S. middle class growth and increased access to college corresponded with the lowest level of U.S. economic inequality in the twentieth century—and the defunding of public higher ed has corresponded with the transformation of the United States into one of the most inequitable societies ever. Public funding of research in public universities also drove innovations in energy, agriculture, the Internet, and aerospace that still pay dividends today.

Public universities also played a vital and nourishing role in the social movements of the 1950s, 60s, and 70s. The G. I. Bill along with the various strands of the Women’s and Civil Rights movements brought working class people, women, and people of color into universities in large numbers. These students brought with them demands for the relevant curricula of Women’s Studies, Black Studies, and Ethnic Studies programs. And they organized to make the world a better place. The end of the Vietnam war began on college campuses. The Free Speech Movement began at a public university. Huey Newton met Bobby Seale in college. The Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee was created by Black college students. Angela Davis was and is a public university professor.

College as the incubator of a more democratic, less white, less patriarchal society was what most frightened Governor Reagan and his descendants (who include, to one degree or another, not only the Bushes and Trump, but also Presidents Clinton and Obama). As long as higher ed was for mostly middle-class white boys, it was a public good. But as soon as other kinds of people start filling classrooms, a sustained and organized effort to redefine higher ed began. Politicians brought us budget cuts and tuition increases. Well-funded think tanks and task forces brought us a relentless campaign to redefine higher ed as a private good. These arguments have become so naturalized that any attempt these days to speak of college as anything more than supermarkets where students shop for credentials that will bring them a higher salary gets a dismissive wave from most politicians and policy makers. We tell our students that our tuition is worth crippling debt because our degrees will bring them more money. In both the way we treat them and the way we talk about them, college presidents have become CEOs and students have become customers.

Last year, a coalition of higher education advocates in Washington helped pass the Workforce Education Investment Act. In arguing for that investment, we dared not range beyond the idea of our students as anything more than a workforce. Our debate around college has become so constricted that we can only conceive of it as training employees, not educating citizens.

Following the money can tell us some hard truths about how we got to where we find ourselves today. Between 1989 and 2013, state appropriations for higher education in the United States increased by 5 percent. In the same time, state appropriations for the Corrections industry increased by 89 percent. In Washington during that same period, state appropriations per FTE higher education student decreased by 50 percent, while state spending per capita on Corrections increased by 43 percent.

We’d rather pay to send people (especially Black and Brown people) to jail than to send them to college. And as we can see in our streets now, we get what we pay for.

Bill Lyne is an English professor at Western Washington University and the president of the United Faculty of Washington State. This column originally appeared at the UFWS blog and is crossposted here with the author’s permission.

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