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How Students Landed on the Front Lines of Class War

University students find themselves victimized by the same neoliberal agenda that has created the current economic crisis.

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Not only is a more rigid class structure implied by the decline of public support for state universities, but more fixed race boundaries are, as well. State universities are the most important vehicle for minority students in attaining a degree. While  800,000minority students attend public universities, fewer than 200,000 can be found on private campuses. If the state universities become as expensive as the privates, the impact on minorities could be severe. It should be noted that the choices made by California are not “natural” or “inevitable.”  Maryland dealt with the recent crisis in a  progressive way by freezing tuition and raising the corporate tax rate to create a Higher Education Investment Fund. 

Why have so many state legislatures betrayed their original commitments to American education? Some have preferred to keep state taxes on the wealthy and on corporations low rather than to keep up with demand for places at state universities. Others have different priorities.

A year and a half ago, then-California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger  complained that California was spending nearly 11 percent of its budget on prisons and only 7.5 percent on the university system. He noted, “Thirty years ago, 10 percent of the general fund went to higher education and 3 percent went to prisons.”  The spike in penitentiary spending is artificial, and does  not reflect crime trends. Since the early 1990s, crime in the state has fallen, whereas the prison population has skyrocketed.

Stiffer penalties have been set even for victimless, nonviolent, drug-related crimes. California is also one of those states with a “three strikes and you’re out” law, which fills prisons with petty shoplifters while setting more lenient penalties for massive white-collar embezzlement. The Legislature has removed judges’ discretion in releasing prisoners early for good behavior. The clout of the California Correctional Peace Officers’ Union and what has been called the “prison-industrial complex” has played a  big role in pushing irrational legislation that has swollen the prison population.

Nationally, the emphasis on supposed law-and-order issues and the epochal mistake of a “war on drugs” that has criminalized a largely inoffensive and medically useful substance like marijuana have gone hand in hand with a  militarization of law enforcement. That is, the defunding of higher education in favor of an enormous gulag dovetails with a rise in the paramilitary repression of the population as one of America’s premier industries.

Not only are UC Davis students being hit with massive tuition increases to pay for the penitentiaries and their policing, they are also being treated like unruly inmates by a militarizing police force. In the meantime, the country is taking giant strides toward the future Jefferson feared, of poorly educated citizens at risk of being manipulated by rising oligarchs.

Juan Cole is a professor of history at the University of Michigan and maintains the popular blog Informed Comment .