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If you haven’t yet seen David Leonhardt’s infographic on higher ed spending across the states since 2008, check it out.  Except for a few small states that rode the fracking boom, nearly every state still funds public higher ed at a lower level than it did in 2007. That holds true across regions, and across every variation of party control. Blue states, red states, and purple states have found common ground in defunding public higher education.

In the immediate wake of the economic collapse, that would have been unremarkable; nearly all public spending got hit when tax revenues dropped. But that was years ago, and even after many years of recovery, we still haven’t recovered. In fact, in many states, it appears that we probably never will.

But we haven’t had a national conversation about the endgame. We should.

In the absence of that conversation, we’ve fallen into a self-defeating cycle. Institutional aid has been shortchanged, which has forced colleges into frustrating cycle of splitting the difference between spending cuts and tuition increases. Then, colleges get raked over the coals politically for tuition increases.  In the few cases in which they take spending cuts to their logical conclusion -- campus closures -- they get heat for that, too. Since the public doesn’t make a distinction between price and cost, cost-shifting looks like a lack of discipline.

(Price refers to what students pay. Cost refers to what the college spends to provide the service.  If cost remains constant but aid drops, which is a pretty good summary of the community college sector over the last decade, then price will go up. If it were due to a lack of “discipline,” then cost would also go up.  It hasn’t.)

Based on observation and inference, I could imagine several possible endgames.

One is simple closure. There are those who believe strongly that public higher education shouldn’t exist at all. They often won’t admit as much, but if you follow their actions, the inference is straightforward enough.

Another, which amounts to the same thing, is privatization. This version sees the goal as weaning public higher education from public support entirely. The glaring flaw here, of course, is that financial aid is still public. They’re really just shifting the burden from one public to another.  

Third is transformation. The ed-tech crowd likes to embrace this, though often with a distinct lack of specificity. Theoretically, this could lead to a better outcome for all, but I’m skeptical when transformation is sold without content. Transformation into what? To the extent that technology or policy changes can enable us to fulfill a social justice and educational mission more efficiently, I’m all for it.  To the extent that it displaces or becomes the mission, though, I’m not.  

Finally, there’s something like long-term sustainability. Again, this perspective can be benign, but it needs to be specific. Many colleges’ enrollments have declined from the peak of 2009-10. In some parts of the country, the demographics are such that it’s unrealistic to think that peak will return in the foreseeable future.  In those areas, there’s an argument for adjusting to a new normal. In the short term, that can be hard to distinguish from the first camp; the key difference is that the desired endgame for this group isn’t closure.  It’s settling in at a different level.

To my mind, none of these is optimal. As the economy becomes more complicated, we need more education, not less. This is the time to ramp it up, not wind it down. But in places where the political winds are strongly in one direction, we should at least have this conversation. If we got everyone to put their cards on the table, I think we’d be surprised at some of the hands.

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