Hyperbole (and Progressive Bloggers) Fail Me: The End of Public Higher Education

by zunguzungu

At a certain point, public universities will have ceased to exist. We will only have a variety of private universities, some of which will be subsidized a little bit by tax-payers. Depending on where you draw the line, the University of California might already be at that point — student tuition now makes up a larger portion of the UC’s budget than state funding — but the long-term trend is undeniable: since 2004, the amount of money the UC has gotten from the state of California has been cut in half, and has continued to decline, every year, with utter and complete reliability. And where the UC and CSU systems are now, every other public university will soon follow. This is not a trend that’s going to end tomorrow. This is a trend that ends with the end of public universities. It just depends on where you decide to draw the line.

With a handful of exceptions, people outside of academia seem to be strikingly oblivious to this simple fact, even people who should be allies. Take erstwhile progressive Californian blogger Kevin Drum. It’s not that his post today,  “Is Harvard Worth it?” is wrong, exactly. The problem is that Drum displays a the same obliviousness to the elephant in the room that so many progressives seem to have. After noting that “I ended up graduating from Cal State Long Beach, and I did pretty well during my pre-blogging career,” he tosses out the line “If you can only afford to go to a state university, don’t fret about it too much.”

“If you can only afford to go to a state university, don‘t fret about it too much.” Except this: Kevin Drum went to a state university that does not exist anymore. When he graduated from Cal State Long Beach in 1981, he paid $160 in fees. If he graduated from the same institution today, the tuition he would have paid for this year would be $4,335. They officially call it “tuition” now, because it’s not meant to be a nominal “fee” anymore. It’s simply the price you pay for your education, as a customer, and next year it will be higher, a lot higher. Unless the direction of things change soon, it will be $6,450. And the year after that? It will be even higher. Fees/Tuition in the Cal State system have risen significantly every year since when Kevin Drum went there, and they have risen by around 400% since 2002. Given the complete intransigence of California republicans, tuition will most likely rise by another 32% next year.

What if it rises by another 32% in 2012? What if it rises by 400% by 2021? It probably won’t, though only a fool would pretend to know what the end-point of the death spiral is. But the numbers are not the point, and you can’t correct for inflation when you’re comparing a nominal fee (1981) to a large financial investment. The difference is in kind, not in quantity. A fundamental shift in the social contract has happened since the state of California paid for Kevin Drum’s degree in 1981. Today, the state of California subsidizes a small part of the degree which CSU students pay for by themselves. Next year, they will subsidize less of it than they do today. The year after that, they will subsidize even less of it.

In short, the option of going to a “state university” which Drum is taking for granted is already nearly gone, and his evasion/obliviousness on this point is infuriating. Whether he knows it or not, whether he means to or not, he is closing his eye to what is happening. Talking about how state universities will survive without state funding — or quietly presuming that they will — is like trying to guess how wheat and barley prices will be affected by the sun being blotted out. An artificially supported commodity stops getting produced when you remove the price supports, and since CSU Long Beach was founded at a time when the state of California committed to paying for the education of California citizens, why should we expect that Kevin Drum’s alma mater will even continue to exist now that they don’t? At a certain point, I suspect, rising tuition will simply reach the level at which students are no longer willing or able to pay. And then universities will start to disappear and many fewer people will go to college.

I don’t expect Kevin Drum to have the answers, and we can debate what it will look like when this bubble finally bursts. Some people think it will be a good thing; I think it will be a clusterfuck for the middle and lower classes. But we all need to open our eyes to the fundamental transformation of American society that it represents. The generation before Drum’s made it possible to get an excellent education even if you couldn’t afford to pay the $9,000 that Stanford charged in 1981. Kevin Drum’s generation enjoyed the benefits of that system and then they dismantled it. My generation is muddling through by going deep into debt. The next generation will not.