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Why Is College So Expensive? The War on Public Universities

The war on public universities began decades ago, and recent state budget cuts are the latest assault.

With 220,000 students, 10 campuses strung across America’s most populous state, five medical centers, three national science laboratories and groundbreaking academic research, the University of California (U.C.) has long symbolized excellence in public higher education. But all that may be changing as a result of budget cuts, reduced access and tuition hikes plaguing public colleges in California and across the country.

U.C. English professor and author Christopher Newfield believes there is more to the current crisis than the recent economic downturn; rather, he argues in his book, Unmaking the Public University, that conservative elites have long targeted higher education because of its role in creating a more empowered, democratic and multiracial middle class.

His view is that decades of slash-and-burn budgets, culture wars, affirmative action attacks and pressure to run universities like a business are part of a concerted effort. The result is not just a hit on classroom quality but on the upward mobility of an entire cohort of high-achieving students whose ambition was, until now, unlimited by their modest means.

A lecturer in the U.C. system, I recently interviewed Newfield on his book and the prognosis for public universities in America. His answers, which were edited, are below.

This past school year was a tough one at the University of California. We saw budget cutbacks, tuition hikes, employee furloughs, lower admissions rates. How do these recent events fit into your larger view of what is happening to public universities?

This is what I was worried was going to happen: aggressive disinvestment in high-quality public universities that allowed for broad access.

In most countries, a top education goes to the top 1-2 percent. The secret of us and other states -- Michigan and Wisconsin, for example -- was that you could get that kind of quality for 10 percent. You had general access to something really good that would put people in strong position as adults. The way California did it is to open admissions at the community college level with open transfer to the U.C. and Cal State if you achieve a certain GPA. If you really look at it, anyone with a high school diploma can earn a degree from Berkeley, even if you had a C- average in high school.

But last year, 300,000 were students turned away from California public colleges for lack of space. California State closed some campuses early, and the U.C. turned away more students than ever. Some community colleges even shut courses.

Further, quality is going down even as access is going down. What we saw in the headlines this past school year has followed 30-40 years of ideological attacks on collaborative development and on the public sector.

“Public” is such a dirty word these days.

“Public” is a dirty word -- it has been my whole lifetime. After driving around in France this summer, I couldn’t believe how bad roads are in California. Or the train system.

But you note in your book that people used to feel positive about public institutions, in particular after World War II. In California, Governor Pat Brown launched a ‘master plan’ to make public higher education free. That would seem socialist in today’s terms.

A couple things: the leaders of the world had almost blown the world up and they were humbled and chastened. Everybody remembered the depression, unemployment, losing their apartments. These were white working-class people the majority could identify with. After war, some went back to live in camps near orange groves. So governors were motivated by a combination of idealism and fear.

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