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After Years of Neglect, Public Higher Education Is at a Tipping Point


Public higher education is at a tipping point in the United States. It is an essential public good that is suffering from an unprecedented erosion of public support, with potentially devastating consequences for our students and our economy.

Last week I spoke at the 2016 World Academic Summit, and I wish my message then and now was not so grim. The question is: Will we pass the tipping point, or can we still avoid it? Can we, after years of neglect, protect our public universities before they are irreversibly damaged?

There is a great deal at stake. The vast majority of the college students in our country attend public colleges and universities. Out of 17 million undergraduate students in American higher education today, eight in 10 are matriculating at a public institution.

Since the Great Recession in 2008, the data regarding public funding for higher education are numbing. Arizona down 56 percent. Wisconsin, reductions of 25 percent. Pennsylvania, 33 percent. Illinois, 54 percent. If the stock market were trending like this, our nation would be in a dead panic. And yet, sadly, we are not.

A result of such massive disinvestment is the rising cost of education for students and families. Universities are forced to cut programs and services. The doors of access swing shut for the most vulnerable students. Stability and future viability are threatened. Public higher education, barring a significant change in direction, may soon be public in name only, no longer a public good but a private one.

If our country continues to disinvest, we will be abandoning an essential feature of American democracy. This is what is at risk: the means to educate the broadest possible swath of our society, for the betterment of society, with full public support. Public institutions, especially, educate large numbers of students from all walks of life — particularly low-income, first-generation and underrepresented students. We cannot lose sight of that, particularly as our society grows more diverse.

Certainly, those of us in higher education must continue to make financial aid more understandable and more broadly available, operate as efficiently as possible, and help our students graduate at greater rates in less time. With less public investment, we will need innovative approaches and public-private partnerships to be successful.

Mostly, though, what we need is a new compact with the public, a refreshed understanding of higher education’s importance for all our citizens. It is only then we can work to substantively reinvest with public funding.

There is no turning back from extinction. With the development of the Endangered Species Act of 1973, our country came to realize the permanent damage being done to animal life threatened by urban sprawl, pollution and hunting. “Our ability to destroy, or almost destroy, all intelligent life on the planet became apparent only in this generation,” the framers of the Act wrote. “A certain humility, and sense of urgency, seems indicated …”

Today, as threats to public higher education loom larger than ever, perhaps we are beginning to see both that sense of urgency and some glimmers of hope. Legislators in 38 states have increased per-student funding. These are baby steps, amounting to less than 3 percent on average, but steps in the right direction. The states need to go much further.

In addition, the enormity of the situation is garnering more public attention. The business community is speaking out, the media coverage is significant, and just last month a new documentary, called “Starving the Beast,” debuted. The film documents 35 years of cuts to public universities, and the growing view that college education does not benefit the public but is merely a private commodity to be purchased.

Former University of California president Clark Kerr was the architect of a state university system that came to be admired worldwide. He did much to define public higher education in the latter half of the 20th century.

“As society goes,” he said, “so goes the university; but also, as the university goes, so goes society.”

We need to remind ourselves as a nation of higher education’s true value and its return on investment, not only to the individual but to society. Our collective progress and prosperity hinge on quality higher education. It is the strongest argument we have for lifting up our public support of this critical public good.

Mary Sue Coleman is president of the Association of American Universities, an association of 62 leading public and private research universities. She is a former president of the University of Michigan and the University of Iowa. This article is adapted from a speech she gave Sept. 27 at the World Academic Summit, in Berkeley, California Originally published in the Washington Post