Whither Public Higher Education

Public higher education faces threats from skeptical publics misinformed by the media, false prophets, and too many public leaders themselves. In ongoing times of fiscal austerity and declining real incomes, pinioned by states and cities strapped for funding, too many look at public university budgets as an over-ripened plumb for picking. That's the conclusion I come to looking back on the last five years and the currents of "change" aloft today.

The U.S. Congress, President Obama and a host of state and local counterparts have presided over perhaps one of the worst eras in terms of drifting commitment to higher education. Funding lower and middle-income students who deserve a chance to complete a higher education degree, a four-year higher education degree, has received too little attention. Rationalizing aid and leaving public higher education to the vagaries of pedestrian negligence hasn't gotten much of his attention either.

The federal government has been joined by state governments that cut effective funding for grant and loan programs. We hear too many stories about the lack of value of higher education. We hear too many stories about overpaid state employees and unfunded pension liabilities.

It all creates an imperfect storm of irrationality that typically has resulted in one major result: cuts to funding for student aid and for public universities.

This is extremely misguided. It shortchanges the present generation and works to accent the class bias of higher education in this country. It also mistreats public universities as analogues of corporations. Tuition and grant revenues can't be open horizons for funding.

The recent rush of enthusiasm for "free" two-year college promises to high school graduates is a case of too-little, too late. President Obama has tried to reinvent the education promise, along with at least one big city mayor of like mind. Obama wants to fund students with free two-year education grants/scholarships at community colleges. Where the money will come from, who knows?

Neither has indicated just how this all would be funded, and Obama's proposal is likely DOA in the U.S. Congress. This all occurs while university tuition costs have increased, in no small part due to loss of public funding. That only irritates the public further.

Instead of working to extend the frontiers of education for Americans to earn four-year degrees, many leaders are bailing with the cop-out that two-year degrees are the better vector for our nation.

While two-year colleges certainly are more affordable and an excellent introduction to higher education, this policy caves into reactionary forces at work in both major parties. They'd tell us that college isn't worth it. And of course it should be free, like a MOOC course or a giveaway at a sporting event.

We should know that the highest gains on educational investments are with graduate degrees. We should know that America is far, far behind many "less powerful" countries already in terms of educational attainments. We should know that nothing about these proposals would accomplish a net educational improvement for the United States of America. Our country will continue to reinforce its disengagement of commitment to the public realm. U.S. PISA (Program for International Student Assessment) scores and comparisons will not improve.

American leaders don't appear to want to educate our citizenry beyond the top 10 to 25 percent of the public in socioeconomic terms. We recoil at the cost that democracy really entails because deep down too many of us are deluded by our own nostrums. There is so much envy and self-deprecation at work in our nation today on this score.

While those whose family incomes and educational opportunities in K-12 already run bright can continue to gain admission and can afford to pay for the most to the near to most expensive and valued higher education options, the rest of the nation's families are treated to the idea of a two-year degree, a free one. This is a step backward of great proportions.

The purported "mainstream" wants educational accountability, testing regimes, closing of failed schools, and "transparency" initiatives. They truck with proponents of "Common Core Initiatives" subtly rooted in neo-conservative visions of the academy. They remain silent on the drift of America's commitment to the public provision of higher education toward Tea Party fantasies. They cower to the ideas that public coffers are bloated, public employees are overpaid, and public pensions can be reconfigured into 401k plans. They see in online education a panacea.

In their rearview mirror, such policies patronize the public with the ridiculous notion that "college should be for free" and "easy". This policy will only increase the numbers of Americans who have some post-secondary education but no four-year degree.

I'm so disappointed. But worse than our country's largely rhetorical leadership posture in the face of the greatest rollback in public higher education ever is the complicity of the great majority of the American people in this disastrous and draconian situation. A host of federal, state and local leaders have bought into the delusion that public higher education is a commodity that can be left to work itself all out for the better.

Should things not change, we shall reap the pain and cost of this neglect for decades to come in sunk costs and sunk lives. We'll see more and more of the "highly educated" occupying third-rate service sector jobs while the same strata of folks along with a miniscule few heroic exceptions occupy the jobs with the highest earnings.

A lot of what goes for purported "reforms in public education" really lack transparency. Novel ways of cutting public education budgets and transferring burdens to American families already working too many hours for declining real incomes accomplish nothing.

The 21st century is not becoming the second American Century. It's increasingly revealing us to be a nation that has forgotten itself, its roots in the public provision of education, and its most rational and reasonable aspirations to a literate and informed citizenry as the substance of freedom.