BY HANK REICHMAN
Public higher education is “dying” in the US, with the pricing out of students from poorer backgrounds amounting to a “national tragedy in the making.” So warned Robert Reich, chancellor’s professor of public policy at the University of California at Berkeley and secretary of labor in the Bill Clinton administration, in a keynote address at the (London) Times Higher Education World Academic Summit, held last month at Berkeley.
“Public higher education is dying in the US,” Professor Reich said. “If we stay on the path we are now on, there will be very little difference between public institutions and private institutions in terms of their funding, or their cost structures, or their tuition [fees].” State funding for public higher education has decreased by 18 per cent since 2008, he said, even as 70 per cent of US students are still educated in public universities
Reich said that tuition fees at public universities had increased by 33 per cent since 2008. The result is that students from poor and lower-middle-class families could “no longer afford public higher education”.
“Higher education is becoming less affordable to many in the bottom 60 per cent just at a time when higher education is more necessary than ever before to succeed in the modern economy and just as inequality is widening more than it has ever widened in the US since the 1880s and 1890s,” he said. “Those three things together spell out, it seems to me, a national tragedy in the making.”
Reich said the problem is exacerbated by the fact that private higher education institutions are “not doing the job they ought to do” to respond to widening inequality. He said that tuition fees at these universities were increasing faster than inflation partly as a result of competition to attract the best academics and to build student facilities that made campuses “look like and function like country clubs”. He also highlighted that federal tax breaks for philanthropic donations meant that the indirect public subsidy for Princeton University now stood at $26,000 per student, compared to the direct subsidy of about $7,000 per student at Berkeley; despite the fact that Berkeley had more students whose background meant that they were eligible for federal subsidy than the entire Ivy League put together.
Higher education is vital to support the critical thinking and public debate that underpin democracy, Reich said. “The loss of that ideal, it seems to me, is a profound problem and a profound challenge to the US in the future and also to all of you who view the US and US higher education as a model for where your countries and your higher education systems wish to go,” he said. “We are leading the world right now in inequality, in terms of advanced economies, and we are leading the world right now in terms of inequality of access to higher education. It is vitally important that we reverse these directions, both of them, and they are intimately connected.”
Leaders of the UC Berkeley Faculty Association have proposed Reich as “an excellent candidate” to become Berkeley’s next Chancellor, whose appointment would be consistent with the “Statement of Principles for Choosing New University of California Chancellors,” issued last month by the Council of University of California Faculty Associations (CUCFA), an AAUP partner organization.
Mary Sue Coleman, president of the Association of American Universities and former president of the University of Michigan and the University of Iowa, also spoke at the summit and conveyed a similar message. In an op-ed published in the Washington Post, she wrote:
Public higher education is at a tipping point in the United States. It is an essential public good that is suffering from an unprecedented erosion of public support, with potentially devastating consequences for our students and our economy. . . .
If our country continues to disinvest, we will be abandoning an essential feature of American democracy. This is what is at risk: the means to educate the broadest possible swath of our society, for the betterment of society, with full public support. Public institutions, especially, educate large numbers of students from all walks of life — particularly low-income, first-generation and underrepresented students. We cannot lose sight of that, particularly as our society grows more diverse. . . .
We need to remind ourselves as a nation of higher education’s true value and its return on investment, not only to the individual but to society. Our collective progress and prosperity hinge on quality higher education. It is the strongest argument we have for lifting up our public support of this critical public good.