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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.

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 to cut 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.