Due to State Budget Cuts, Public Colleges and Universities Now Less 'Public' Than Ever

What’s it mean to be a “state university,” like the University of Oregon or the University of Virginia, these days? It used to mean the state financially supported a college or university.

Not so much anymore.

States are still funding higher education below pre-recession levels, concludes a new report from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP). And their lack of support comes at a high price: Because of funding cuts, state college students have seen their tuition skyrocket over the past decade, while faculty and staff have seen their programs and jobs cut.

“From the Morrill Acts in the 19th century, to the G.I. Bill and Higher Education Act in the 20th century, this country made a commitment to a college education for all. These draconian funding cuts make that commitment empty,” said Mark F. Smith, NEA senior policy analyst for higher education.

In Oregon, for example, the state provides just 5 percent of the University of Oregon’s funding. In Virginia, state funds for the university divisions add up to about 5.8 percent of the total $2.6 billion budget. In all, 48 states are spending less per student than they did before the recession, and while some states have restored some of the cuts they made, another eight are still cutting. (Pennsylvania, Arkansas, Kansas, North Carolina, Wisconsin, Louisiana, West Virginia, and Wyoming are the eight still cutting.)

“The large funding cuts have led to both steep tuition increases and spending cuts that may diminish the quality of education available to students at a time when a highly educated workforce is more crucial than ever to the nation’s economic future,” conclude the CBPP authors. This county is projected to need an additional 22 million college-educated workers by 2018—and is likely to fall short by at least 3 million.

Door of Opportunity Closing

It used to be that “regular people could pay nominal fees to universities in Charlottesville, Seattle, Austin, Berkeley, Los Angeles, Chapel Hill, Buffalo, Madison, Ann Arbor, Columbus, and Champagne-Urbana and get more or less the same gold standard education that the chosen few got at Harvard, Princeton, and Yale,” wrote University of Western Washington professor Bill Lyne in NEA’s Thought & Action journal.

And it worked—for those people, and also for the nation as a whole. “Public universities were one of the primary drivers of the middle class expansion and prosperity that turned the 20th century into the American century,” wrote Lyne. “And state universities and colleges have given millions of American working class people, veterans, women, and people of color opportunities that they wouldn’t have had otherwise.”

But, as public commitment to higher education has steadily declined over the past few decades, the doors of opportunity have closed. It’s part of the “general assault on the public sphere and the middle class,” writes Lyne, while California professor Christopher Newfield calls it the “unmaking of the public university” and argues that it’s not just about the recession or any other “economic rough patch.” It’s about right-wing conservatives systematically destroying the middle class so that they don’t have to share their “political and economic pie.”

It’s a depressing situation, but it’s not hopeless. Students and faculty are working together on campuses all over the country to lobby for fair funding and keep open the doors of opportunity. The Campaign for the Future of Higher Education, of which NEA is a partner, seeks long-term solutions. Meanwhile, the NEA Degrees Not Debt campaign has staked new ground in calling for all Americans to have a fair shot at higher education.

Take the Degrees Not Debt pledge!

Related Links:
Is the U.S. Falling Behind in Higher Education?
College Costs Increasing Dramatically For Poor Students. For Wealthy Students? Not So Much
Is Higher Education Propping Up White Privilege?