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Is American Higher Ed Screwed? Conservatives Try to Privatize College As Tuition Soars

The economic crisis has created an opportunity for attacks on public institutions. Universities are not immune.
 
 
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As in most corners of American life, crisis is the new normal in academia. Investment returns to university endowments have plummeted, state aid is being cut, and critical federal stimulus dollars are running out. Tuition is up, enrollment is being capped, positions are being eliminated, and universities are increasingly relying on part-time adjunct faculty that shuttle from campus to campus in an effort to cobble together a paycheck.

Parents, out-of-work and saddled with depleted savings and home values, are less able to afford tuition than ever. As these axes fall, conservatives are pushing to remake universities in the image of private corporations: budgets dependent on the generosity of rich people, professors instructed to prove their market fitness or pack their bags, and cuts to the humanities in favor of more “practical” courses of study.

University of California Berkeley political scientist Wendy Brown argues that, paradoxically, public universities are most at risk of corporate takeover. Private colleges will remain dedicated to providing the elite with a well-rounded, liberal arts education. Higher education as a whole will become more stratified and less inclusive. 

Hobbled by a 17-percent mid-year cut in 2009, the University of Arizona, Arizona State University and Northern Arizona University raised tuition by between 16 and 20 percent for the current academic year. More cuts are expected.

In North Carolina, UNC Asheville is contemplating the elimination of 20 to 40 positions and double-digit tuition hikes. Western Carolina University already eliminated 93 positions for the current academic year, and Washington Democratic Governor Christine Gregoire’s proposal includes 11 percent tuition hikes in 2011 and 2012. New Jersey higher education has been cut by $130 million.

Educators are particularly nervous now that Republicans, riding an austerity-minded Tea Party wave, control 29 governors’ mansions and won over 720 new seats in state legislatures nationwide. Ohio Governor John Kasich is also expected tocut deep. During his tenure as chairman of the House budget committee, he supported eliminating the U.S. Department of Education. Though he may be an opponent of public spending, he is an eager recipient. From 2001-'09, Ohio State University paid Kasich a $50,000 salary to deliver a handful of lectures a month.

The financial crisis has led to fiery student demonstrations in some places. At the University of Puerto Rico, a two-month student strike shut down 10 of 11 campuses in the spring of 2010. Students in Berkeley, Los Angeles and Santa Cruz marched and occupied buildings in the fall of 2009. England, however, has been the global leader in resistance to education cutbacks, with mass student protests at the close of 2010 challenging plans to raise tuition and seriously undermining the coalition government’s credibility in the process.

But with the exception of Puerto Rico and California, American campuses have been mostly quiet. The New York Times has remarked upon the toned-down response at City University of New York (CUNY), which is facing a 5-percent tuition hike and bracing for more. Unlike past militant actions, students have “mostly stayed within the confines of law and order.”

One hundred institutions now charge $50,000 or more a year in tuition, fees, room, and board. In 2010, the University of California at Berkeley became the first public university to charge that much, though only for out-of-state students. Out-of-state students are cash cows, and universities around the country are seeking to increase their number on campus: they pay higher tuition but dilute the state university’s mission to educate local students.

Community college enrollment is booming as people seek shelter from a punishing labor market. But the underfunded schools have been hit with canceled and overcrowded classes despite increased federal support ushered in by President Obama. The City College of San Francisco even considered selling off the naming rights to classes.

Universities are in a bind: legislators cut higher education budgets but then push back against tuition increases. In Virginia, Republican Governor Robert McDonnell cut aid to Virginia Commonwealth University to punish them for a 24 percent tuition hike, even though the school was trying to make up for previous state cuts.

Students have been spared from some of the higher cost thanks to the federal government increasing grant aid for higher education from $25.2 billion to $41.3 billion in a single year. It’s also true that many students don’t pay the full sticker price. The so-called discount rate, the difference between the listed price and what students actually pay, has been on the rise. But these funds are not exclusively need-based, and there is concern that sticker shock may deter poor students from applying. And universities are taking on a lot of debt in the process.

The economic crisis has created an opportunity for attacks on public institutions, from unionized city workers to state funds for organ transplants. Universities, like other facets of contemporary life, are subject to the logic of the market. And it’s not just about cuts; it’s about how the university is being remade to operate according to the principles that guide multinational corporations.

In Texas, Republican Governor Rick Perry has packed the board of regents at all six state college systems with political allies who share his vision that “colleges [should be run] like businesses whose customers are students.” Texas A&M, the governor’s alma mater, now publicly lists the pay and benefits of all faculty members and compares them against the number of students taught and the amount of funds they attract through research. The university also pays “performance bonuses” based on student evaluations. Perry wants to replicate these reforms statewide.

The business approach has already taken over much of the politics surrounding secondary education, with charter schools and easy-to-fire, performance paid teachers touted as a silver bullet. High school reading and math test preparation has nudged aside courses on literature, art or history. The corporate makeover of higher ed has meant less job security for faculty, bigger salary differences between more or less “valuable" professors, and an attack on the humanities, from literature to philosophy.

Berkeley professor Wendy Brown says there is a “steadily widening divide between the humanities and ‘hard’ social sciences,” with conservatives looking to amputate the former.

In 2006, Pennsylvania State University’s political science department eliminated the subfield of political theory, the puzzlings of philosophers deemed too impractical. Humanities ask different questions in different sorts of ways--ways that are hard to assign a dollar value to but are nonetheless useful to citizens of a democracy. As Brown puts it, at risk “is not only medieval English poetry, Sanskrit, and political philosophy” but all “thinking, teaching, and learning that pertains to questions of what, apart from capital accumulation and appreciation, planetary life might be about or worth.”

At the other end of the disciplinary spectrum, UCLA’s Anderson School of Management is planning to go it alone: its funding will be completely private and they will have the right to charge students private-school level tuition and pay teachers whatever they want. The financial crisis documentary Inside Job details the conflicts of interest provoked by academic economists sitting on corporate and Wall Street boards. Higher ed’s growing reliance on corporate funds could allow business to drive research agendas and, perhaps, conclusions.

With university coffers pinched, social policies aimed to ensure equal access to higher education and diverse student bodies are taking a hammering from a decades-long backlash against the civil rights movement.

In November, Arizona voters approved a referendum banning affirmative action in state universities. The referendum was the work of black conservative activist Ward Connerly, head of the so-called American Civil Rights Institute which has now successfully passed such legislation in five states. Florida also banned affirmative action in 1999.

Meanwhile, students turned away from overcrowded community colleges are enrolling en masse at for-profit institutions like the University of Phoenix and the Washington Post Company-owned Kaplan University, which have drawn intense scrutiny from the Department of Education for using shady recruitment techniques to lure the poor deep into debt with few jobprospects.California community colleges actually explored contracting out classes to Kaplan, a plan that was shelved after protests from faculty and students. These universities actually are profit-seeking corporations. With more cuts and business partnerships on the horizon, public institutions may not lag far behind.

Daniel Denvir is a journalist in Philadelphia.