Public Higher Education
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The Market Shouldn’t Decide Who Gets Educated, We Should

This article by Donald Cohen first appeared on Truthout’s SpeakOut series.


Private control over public goods (i.e., privatization) comes in many forms. Higher education is a classic example of a public good—it should be available to as many people as possible. Yet, as Adam Davidson reveals in an article published last week in The New York Times Magazine, rising tuition, reduced public spending, and market logic are increasingly reshaping our higher education system.

What makes higher education a public good? Our values, our national health (not just economic, but our cultural richness, and the stability and security of families), and because we say so. Democracy means we decide what makes a good society.

The bottom line is, as Davidson writes, “[e]very American benefits when every other American has access to as much schooling as he or she wants. When accessibility to higher education declines we all end up paying for it.”

He describes it perfectly:

“Education can have enormous personal benefits for those who acquire it, but it also has external benefits to the rest of society. Education exerts something of a multiplier effect; it transforms not only the lives of the educated but of those around them as well. Workers with more education are more productive, which makes companies more profitable and the overall economy grow faster. There are also significant noneconomic benefits. Educated populations tend to be healthier, more stable and more engaged in their civic institutions and democratic debate.”

Public underinvestment in higher education doesn’t happen by accident. Harvard professor Lawrence Katz pointed out in a recent paper that “states that had elite private schools in the 1890s are less likely to have developed…strong, upper tier public schools.” The reason: powerful private schools lobbied to keep public institutions underfunded.

Some more facts from Davidson’s article:

  • “Since the 1980s most states have decreased their per-student spending on public education. In the 2001-2002 school year, public schools received from 44 percent to 62 percent of their funding from state governments. Only a decade later, those levels had decreased to27 percent to 51 percent. On average, states have lowered their per-student funding by 25 percent over the last 15 years. Some—Louisiana, Wisconsin, Kansas and Arizona—have cut their support sharply in the past few years.”

  • ‘Small government’ politicians see spending on higher education as a juicy target. For example, Governor Scott Walker has cut $250 million from Wisconsin’s budget for higher education.

Public universities have increasingly acted like private universities with higher tuitions and corporate donations that fund corporate-friendly research and programs. For example, according to a recent New York Times investigative report, some scientists at the University of Florida recently took funding from corporate giant Monsanto to intervene with the USDA on the GMO industry’s behalf.

Rather than the public good it should be, higher education has become a market product accessible to those who can afford it, harming America in the process.

Copyright, Truthout.org. Reprinted with permission.