The Past and Future of Public Higher Education
By Nick Strohl
First of all, I would like to offer my thanks to L.D., and to all of you who manage and contribute to this terrific blog, for the opportunity to write a guest post. I have been a regular reader for about a year, hovering on the margins of the discussion as one might at a lively cocktail party conversation. I do not first and foremost consider myself an intellectual historian—if, at this early stage of my graduate career I consider myself anything—although I have always found intellectual historians to be among the smartest and most interesting folks in the room, and I always learn something new when I spend time with them. This virtual community has not failed to disappoint in that regard.
My topic for this post is public higher education in the United States, its past and just as importantly its future. This is not intended to be another summary of the various ways in which the university is in “crisis,” which, arguably, it has been since Peter Abelard challenged accepted modes of theological discourse in 12th century France. Instead, my goal is to begin a conversation about how intellectual and cultural historians can help in understanding some of the most recent changes in the landscape of American public higher education.
As I will briefly outline below, the halcyon days of public higher education (c. 1945-1970) are over. Many states have demonstrated an unwillingness or inability to fund public higher education at all levels: elite flagships are increasingly expected to make up for declining state appropriations through research dollars and tuition revenue, while community colleges struggle to meet the demand for their services. As a historian, I am interested in what these changes portend for the place of public higher education in American society. To what extent are we seeing a revision of a historic “social contract” between the state and its citizens to provide postsecondary education, as some suggest? And to what extent are public institutions of higher education obligated to perform public service, especially as they come to rely less and less on taxpayer money? Finally, to whom are public institutions of higher education ultimately beholden—students, taxpayers, elected officials, faculty, others?
A long history of this subject—the meaning of public higher education in American society—might begin with a consideration of the Trustees of Dartmouth College v. Woodward in 1819 or the passage of the Morrill Act in 1862. The latter example, in particular, first made explicit the duty of publicly-funded institutions to serve a broader public, to pursue useful research, and to be responsive to local needs. By the middle of the twentieth century, this public mission had expanded to include the provision of mass higher education, an ideal embodied most fully by the California Master Plan (1960), but also embraced by many other states, especially in the Midwest and West. By about 1970, public higher education had come to dominate the landscape American higher education, enrolling nearly eighty percent of all American students in postsecondary institutions (up from fifty percent in 1950). As historian of higher education Roger Geiger has explained, “The English language has no word for the opposite of privatization. Yet, that is what occurred from 1945 to 1980 in American higher education (as well as other spheres). American states poured enormous resources into building public systems of higher education: flagship universities were expanded and outfitted for an extensive research role; teachers colleges grew into regional universities; public urban universities multiplied and grew; and a vast array of community colleges was built.”
Today, public institutions still educate a large majority of postsecondary students (about 72 percent), but they do so in ways that, I would contend, represent a growing departure from their historic mission(s). In at least several areas, public institutions and systems—at all levels—are much less “public” than in the past: in their sources of funding, in their governance structures, and in their cost and accessibility to students, among other things. Some of these changes are most striking at the elite institutions, such as UW-Madison or UC-Berkeley, but they filter down to students at all levels, with perhaps the most important consequences for those at the margins of the public system: community college students. As a recent report from the Center for the Future of Higher Education demonstrates, budget cuts and enrollment limitations at the top of the public higher education pyramid have “cascaded” down to those students—often low-income, non-traditional, and first-generation—at the bottom. For the first time since the rise of mass public higher education in the middle of the century, willing and able high school graduates are being turned from the very institution—the community college—that was supposed to be a last bastion of educational opportunity beyond high school.
I do not have enough space to illustrate fully the trends described above, although a few facts might paint a picture.
*Here at UW-Madison, state appropriations now make up about 15% of the university operating budget, down from about 27% in 1997-1998 and from a majority share of the budget several decades ago. In other states, the share of state support in university budgets can be much lower. At a recent conference on higher education here in Madison, University of Colorado-Boulder political science professor Ken Bickers reported that UC-Boulder now counts state appropriations as an astonishing 4.6% of its overall budget. For most professors and administrators at Boulder, Bickers said, the question of whether to “privatize” the flagship campus is an essentially meaningless one at this point.
*At the elite level of public higher education—the state flagships—reform is decidedly in the direction of privatization—for lack a better term—meaning greater reliance on research dollars, public-private partnerships, patent revenue, private donations and tuition revenue in lieu of state funds. Examples of comprehensive reform plans around the country include Louisiana State’s “Flagship Coalition”, championed by Louisiana business leaders and prominent LSU alumni such as James Carville; UC-Boulder’s “Flagship 2030” plan; and Ohio’s “Enterprise University” plan. Similar plans in Wisconsin and Oregon—the “New Badger Partnership” and the “New Partnership,” respectively—have met been met with greater resistance from the public, other system leaders, and the legislatures in those states. In both Wisconsin and Oregon, the failure to achieve these proposed reforms led to the abrupt departures of UW-Madison Chancellor Biddy Martin (after three years on the job) and UO president Richard Lariviere (after two years). Even more recently, University of Virginia President Teresa Sullivan became the victim of a dispute over “philosophical differences” with the UVA Board of Visitors. Sullivan, it appears, was unwilling to implement a program of zero-cost reforms, such as online learning, with the speed and alacrity expected from the Board.
*Perhaps the most “felt” change in public higher education today is its cost to students and their families. If declining state support has meant one thing at all levels of public higher education—whether at flagships or at community colleges—it is that students must pay more of the share of the cost of attendance. As rising tuition and costs have far outpaced growth in family incomes and various forms of grant-based financial aid, more students and families have had to rely on loans. A recent report by Demos, a public policy research and advocacy organization based in New York, offers an excellent overview of the deleterious effect of higher education cuts for the American middle class. Among its findings, the report explains that “states have reached a turning point in their relationship to public higher education, and the policy choices of the next few years will determine the extent to which public institutions of higher education continue to function as a bridge to the middle class for young adults, especially for those from low- and moderate-income backgrounds.”
Taken together, the above trends suggest a much narrower conception of the mission of public higher education than has historically been the case, at least since the mid-twentieth century: research is increasingly valued for its potential to reach the marketplace; students are expected to pay for the cost of their own education beyond high school, even if that requires that they take on significant debt; and institutions, especially elite flagships, demand to govern themselves with less state oversight, including the freedom to set their own tuition levels. Of course, private universities have long enjoyed many of these freedoms now sought by these public universities; and private universities themselves provide some measure of public service in their teaching and research. But the aggressiveness with which public universities have moved in the direction of private models is something new, and, in my view, represents a revision of the historic mission of public higher education without an open discussion about what is in fact taking place.
This, I think, is where historians, and especially intellectual and cultural historians, can provide a service. In my view, we need to better understand not just the structural changes in American higher education in the last fifty years, but also the broader intellectual and cultural changes that have accompanied them. Why should taxpayers share some, if not all, of the cost of higher education for all? To what extent should public universities be controlled by democratically-elected state legislatures, instead of being free to run their own affairs? And to what extent should taxpayers provide support for those students who cannot afford the cost of postsecondary education? These are questions that, to some extent, can be answered by economists and political scientists.8 But they are also questions whose answers are embedded in culture and politics.
My own two cents, based on the work of Christopher Newfield (Unmaking the Public University, 2008) and Andrew Hartman (“Occupy Wall Street: A New Culture War”) is that a better understanding of the place of the public higher education in American society will come with a better understanding of the meaning of the “culture wars” of the last several decades. As both Newfield and Hartman explain, the “culture wars” paradigm has tended to obscure the connection between economic and cultural issues, which are more often than not one-and-the-same. Thus, the demand that students pay for their cost of their college education—whether through loans, scholarships, parental support, work, or some combination of all of these—resonates with political discourse about personal responsibility; the desire of public flagships to operate with greater autonomy makes sense in a world where the corporate model is the gold standard; and the idea that the government should get out of the business of funding higher education aligns with the view that less government intrusion leads to more efficient market outcomes.
My question for the readers of this blog, therefore, is how one might begin to historicize the changes in public higher education since the middle of the twentieth century. Are these changes part of broader intellectual and cultural changes in the postwar era? What other frameworks might one use to understand the place of higher education, public or private, in American society today? I am interested to hear how others might begin to assess some of the trends described above, as well as how and whether these changes have been felt on the ground.
For an insightful assessment of the most recent spate of books on the shortcomings of American higher education, readers should see Anthony Grafton’s reviews in the New York Review of Books, particularly the one brought to the attention of this blog last fall by Andrew Hartman.
 See, for example, John Aubrey Douglass, The Conditions for Admission: Access, Equity, and the Social Contract of Public Universities (Palo Alto, CA: Stanford, 2007).
See John Aubrey Douglass, The California Idea and American Higher Education: 1850 to the 1960 Master Plan (Palo Alto, CA: Stanford, 2000): 1-18.
Roger L. Geiger, “Postmortem for the Current Era: Change in American Higher Education, 1980-2010,” Working Paper No. 3, (State College, PA: Center for the Study of Higher Education, Pennsylvania State University, July 2010), 3. The enrollment statistics cited above also come from this source.
I am in debt to UW-Madison professor Sara Goldrick-Rab and her blog, “The Education Optimists,” for pointing me in the direction of some of the most recent reports and data on the issues discussed in this post. See http://eduoptimists.blogspot.com/ for more.
Higher education researchers Sheila Slaughter and Gary Rhoades provide a detailed and comprehensive analysis of the development of these trends in the last three decades of the twentieth century in their book, Academic Capitalism: Markets, the State, and Higher Education (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2004).
The Great Cost Shift: How Higher Education Cuts Undermine the Future Middle Class (2012), 3.
For a historical analysis of the connection between educational attainment and long-term economic growth, see the work of economists’ Claudia Goldin and Lawrence F. Katz in The Race Between Education and Technology (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 2008).