U.S. Intellectual History Blog

The Past and Future of Public Higher Education

Today’s guest blogger, Nick Strohl, has just completed his second year as a doctoral student in History and Educational Policy Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. His areas of study include the history of education, American intellectual and cultural history, and higher education history and policy. His current research focus is American higher education during the interwar years.

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.[1] 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?[2] 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.[3] 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.”[4]

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.[5]

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.[6] 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.”[7]

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.

[1]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.

[2] See, for example, John Aubrey Douglass, The Conditions for Admission: Access, Equity, and the Social Contract of Public Universities (Palo Alto, CA: Stanford, 2007).

[3]See John Aubrey Douglass, The California Idea and American Higher Education: 1850 to the 1960 Master Plan (Palo Alto, CA: Stanford, 2000): 1-18.

[4]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.

[5]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.

[6]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).

[7]The Great Cost Shift: How Higher Education Cuts Undermine the Future Middle Class (2012), 3.

[8]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).

11 Thoughts on this Post

  1. this is very interesting, many thanks for posting.

    for myself–and this is not a particularly well-informed opinion–without saying that the culture wars have no place here, i would really emphasize the degree to which the transfer of cost from ‘the taxpayer’ to ‘the student’ is replicated in many different fields. (annoying academic quotes indicating that these are after all maybe the same person).

    that is, doesn’t this roll-back of public higher education go hand in hand with a generalized roll-back of public services and commitments? for instance to health care? the range of privatizations since the 1970s seems to me so wide that it must be driving the shifting culture, or allowing it, rather than driven by it.

    might an important point here, regardless of how once balances the economic and the cultural, be that the massive inflow of public funds corresponded to the arrival of a much higher percentage of the population on college campuses–and that the departure of public money is *not* so far corresponding to a decrease in the percentage of americans who go to college?

    to me, this sounds like higher education in general is being transformed, just like everything else, into a way to generate profit. but perhaps i’m being vulgar.

  2. Minor addendum: I submitted the text for this post about a week ago, just as the news about Teresa Sullivan/UVa was breaking–otherwise, it might have received more attention above. The Sullivan incident has also been developing quickly over the last week. The latest news, according to Inside Higher Ed, is that she may be reappointed. It seems, however, that all of this is far from over. (http://www.insidehighered.com/)

  3. Eric: Thanks for your comment. I think you are generally right — that public higher education is one of many areas where we are seeing a transfer of once-public resources, services, and benefits to the private sector. The bipartisan consensus on federal education policy at the K-12 level–which steers money towards charters, online education, and non-union, short-term teacher placement programs like Teach For America–operates along the same lines.

    But what I find just as interesting are the changes in public opinion about such issues over the last generation or so. For instance (and this is somewhat old data), a 2003 Chronicle of Higher Ed poll reported that “More than 90 percent of U.S. adults believe that every high school student who wants a four-year college education should have the opportunity to gain one . . . and two-thirds believe that state and federal governments should invest more money in higher education. But nearly two-thirds believe that students and their families should pay the largest share of the cost of a college education.” (quoted in American Higher Education for the Twenty-First Century (2005), p. 132). So there is a curious disconnect there about what the public wants for all students and young people, and who should pay for it. I think you are right to note that this has something to do with shifting demographics since WWII.

    Another interesting point to consider is whether the average taxpayer/citizen understands the degree to which funding (and governance, etc) have changed over the last generation. At the UW-Madison higher ed. conference referenced in my post, Ken Bickers speculated that the average Coloradan (is that right?) might estimate that the state provides about 25-50% of Boulder’s budget. In other words, they would probably be very surprised to learn that it only accounts for about 5%. Similarly, I wonder if Virginians, until now, have a clear sense of who runs an institution like UVa. It would be interesting to see some polling on some of these issues.

  4. In addition to tuition costs, access to education is also limited by enrollment quotas. At the University of Wisconsin-Madison, increased enrollment of out-of-state and international students help fill the budget gaps as state aid decreases. These students pay over twice as much for the same education (2012-13 tuition rates are $10,380 for WI residents and $26,630 non-residents).

    Don’t public educational institutions built and funded by state tax dollars have an obligation to educate the descendents of those who have been living and paying taxes in the state for generations?

    At least, wasn’t that part of the “Idea” in Wisconsin?

    • Out-of-state undergraduate enrollment (a category which includes international students) at the UW-Madison is capped at 25% of total undergraduate enrollment, and has been for many years. If the total number of out-of-state undergraduate students has increased, it has only been possible by increasing the total number of undergraduate students enrolled each year.

  5. The state of Wisconsin gets more slots at UW Madison than it deserves given actual funding now and for many years. It IS exactly those higher tuition paying students from out of state that make it possible for Madison to take as many instate students as it does without completely losing quality. Even the infrastructure is no longer funded mostly by the state but instead by donations from alumni and supporters of Madison from all over the world.

    The state has many more places to study at a public institution than just UW Madison. There is plenty of room for all the instate students somewhere within the UW System and the Tech colleges.

  6. The crisis in public education is a reflection of the failure of the project of creating an American nation. e pluribus unum simply isn’t working out very well at present. Since the public doesn’t recognize themselves in the students, they are increasingly unwilling to pay for their education. This alienation also affects the character of education since the only going justification for colleges and universities is now vocational and economic. The older notion that education is a central way that a civilization reproduces its values and traditions in a new generation doesn’t work in the absence of a credible unitary culture.

    It’s not that higher education doesn’t or shouldn’t have a vital economic role—even Medieval universities served to train clerics, doctors, and lawyers—but we’re seeing the limits of a purely functional justification for schools. It turns out that intangibles matter very much indeed.

    In a larger sense, what’s going on in education is a part of a general crisis of identity similar to what took place in the 1860s when parochial interests also refused to support national institutions. In this connection, I note that it is hardly an accident that the part of the nation least committed to public education in those days proved most disloyal to the national cause. That hasn’t changed, though the fissure is less territorial now than then.

  7. Grace and I were mulling over this article and first let me say, great post, Nick. Anyway, we were thinking that you might want to look into how concepts such as profitability, rationality, and responsibility not only underpin the current attitudes toward higher education, but also how they have shifted over the past several decades. For example, whereas public universities once ostensibly operated on a modal of social profitability anchored in the externalities (economic and else wise) of a highly-educated citizenry, the trend now seems to be toward the private profitability of the institution itself. It would seem that with this shift, notions of responsibility and rationality also change since individual risk increases drastically with the growing pace of student debt. Interrogating these changes would be another way of following up on your well-worded noting that the culture wars are inexorably linked to economic as well as other issues. Ideas like “responsibility” have, after all, huge economic as well as moral ramifications. The literature on neoliberalism might be a good starting point on this issue. S.M. Amadae’s (political theorist at Ohio State) book _Rationalizing Capitalist Democracy: The Cold War Origins of Rational Choice Theory _might be useful.


  8. No a large portion of the change in attitude toward public higher education is the now common view that the benefits of higher ed flow mostly to the individual and that any societal benefits are difficult for the average working-class citizen to see or feel in their own lives. It is has long been touted that one of the greatest benefits of higher ed is greater lifetime earning and lower unemployment for the degree holders. So the guy working at a paper mill in Neenah sees very little public benefit trickling down to him.

  9. “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.”

    I’d like to suggest that since the mid-twentieth century perhaps isn’t all that historic. You mention “the halcyon days of public higher education,” but that was a rather limited moment in time; a quarter century, give or take a few years at either end. If we say it was thirty-five years, from 1945 to 1980, we’re only another thirty-five years beyond the end of that period. That’s not all that long. Maybe what is happening is simply a reversion to the state of higher education before that, in which it served a modest population. In other words, the situation whose demise is beign lamented may be an aberration or anomaly. And even with the vast expansion of higher education since WWII, just thirty percent of Americans have a bachelor’s degree. That’s the highest ratio ever, both in absolute and percentage terms. But it still means the majority of Americans don’t get degrees and are left, if not unscathed, then only lightly scarred, for better or for worse, by the experience of higher education.

    The demand for college education is greater than ever. But it is a demand that affects only half the population of the United States. In all these discussions, that fact ought not be overlooked.

  10. Thanks for this great post, Nick. As I always say, members of the historical discipline should pay more attention to the history of education.

    There are at least a couple of big trends at work here. First of all, as has been stated above, there is a general privatization of life in recent decades. Look at gated communities, for example, or shopping centers that replicate public streets or squares in the way they are laid out. (Right now I am sitting at a coffeeshop in one of those shopping centers in metro Atlanta, lamenting the pseudo-public space outside that *looks* like it is public, but isn’t really.) Let’s be blunt: this privatization is a way for the wealthy elite to control access to institutions such as universities. As public higher education is defunded, two things happen. First, wealthy individuals can take the dollars once collected as taxes and then funnel them into private institutions that promote ideas friendly to those individuals–or limit access to ideas that are *not* friendly to them. Second, if the wealthy do choose to funnel those dollars into semi-private, once-public flagship institutions (Wisconsin, Illinois, Michigan, etc.), they can control what goes on in those institutions. I hate to simplify it this much, but this has been happening since at least the 1980s.

    Of course, here are additional factors to consider–for example, the role of wars (Civil War, World Wars I & II) in expanding the state and, subsequently, the funding and scope of public higher education. As historians (such as Stephanie McCurry in _Confederate Reckoning_, 2010) have pointed out, in times of warfare, the state compels individuals to fulfill their many obligations to the state; afterward, the state is often compelled to reciprocate by expanding access to public institutions. Note that public higher education boomed immediately after World War II–in the heydey of the GI Bill–and declined after 1973, when the draft was eliminated and American citizens were no longer compelled by law to fight for the nation-state. As Rodgers pointed out in _Age of Fracture_, national solidarity and sense of belonging in the public sphere have broken down in the last quarter of the 20th century. This has made it easier to defund institutions once seen as belonging to the public, and contributing immensely to the common good. In other words, the bonds between individual and state–the entity capable of creating truly public institutions–have broken down immensely in the last generation (or two).

    Certainly there is more to consider here, but I will leave it at that for now.

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