Whatever Happened to Public Higher Education? (Part 1)

The era of state and federal subsidies making public education affordable is no more

Of the 21 million students in higher education in America, nearly 75 percent are in public institutions, roughly equally divided between two-year and four-year campuses. Although the total number of students grew steadily until three years ago, the distribution in public versus private, and two-year versus four-year, has stayed relatively steady over the past decade.

What hasn’t stayed steady is the level of state financial support for public institutions, and the level of regard the public at large has for its state institutions. These two factors are related, as I will demonstrate shortly.

First, a few facts:

How could all this have happened? How did we, as a country, go from once providing huge subsidies to make public institutions affordable for millions of students from modest backgrounds, thereby enabling them to climb the ladder of social mobility, to a point today where fewer than two in five Americans, in a recent poll, said that they strongly supported giving more state support to public colleges and universities (The Chronicle of Higher Education, “From Public Good to Private Good,” March 3, 2014)?

(The reader might also reasonably ask why the president of a private university would be addressing these concerns. In the interests of full disclosure, I received both my baccalaureate and masters from public universities, and, prior to joining Roger Williams University in 2011, I spent 43 years working at two flagship public universities and two masters’ level state universities. I left public higher education in large measure because I tired of the constant drumbeat of negativity from elected officials regarding public institutions. I believe, at least in the near term, that our nation’s economic future rests largely on the ability of private institutions to create “affordable excellence” for their students.)

Consider: The GI Bill of 1944 provided four years of tuition, at $500 per year (at the time, more than any university in the country was actually charging), plus $65 per month living expenses, allowing more than two million veterans to attend college before the program ended in 1956. For a total investment of public funds over 12 years of just $5.5 billion, the GI Bill transformed America, both economically and socially.

The spirit of the GI Bill continued through the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s, as hundreds of new public colleges and universities were constructed, allowing millions of young people a highly affordable opportunity to obtain a college or university degree, and the economic advantages that came with that level of education. We demonstrated, as no country before ever had, the enormous benefits of investing public funds in higher education.

But by the 1980s, our collective enthusiasm for this kind of public investment had waned. A university degree was increasingly perceived as more of a private benefit than a public good, and there were other demands being placed on state budgets. For example, Medicaid costs represented approximately 10 percent of state budgets in 1987. By 2012, Medicaid costs had risen to 24 percent. The prison industry was another rising claimant on the public purse – and, after all, colleges and universities could always increase their tuition, a type of self-help not available to Medicaid or prisons.

Next week: Part 2.