The United States has seen a significant decline in state support for higher education in recent years. From 2000 to 2012, state support per full-time equivalent student declined from an average of $7,000 to $4,400 after inflation, a drop of almost 4 percent a year. Over the same period, federal support grew 2.5 percent annually after inflation, from $3,800 to $5,100 per full-time equivalent.
The contrast between state and federal investment in the specific period from 2008 to 2012, the first four years after the Great Recession, was even greater: state support declined at an annual rate of 7.8 percent, while federal support grew at an annual rate of 7.3 percent. And while three states (Montana, North Dakota and Wyoming) have increased support for public higher education over the past three years, the other 47 states have decreased it.
On a more granular level, one has seen budget collapses at the City University of New York and a budget impasse threatening all public universities in Illinois. One might ask why City University -- which not only offered high-quality tuition-free university education through 1976 but also produced 13 Nobel laureates from the classes of 1933 through 1963 -- does not enjoy greater public support, support it once had. One might ask why Illinois universities -- including the flagship University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Chicago State University and others -- do not enjoy greater public support, again support the system once had.
The Tragedy of the Commons
The decline in state support for public universities appears to be flip side of a classic economic conundrum: the tragedy of the commons. The tragedy of the commons describes overuse of a shared resource (for example, a fishing area) by individual users (fishermen). Since each fisherman can expect to harvest only a small fraction of future fish growth, the optimal strategy is to catch as many fish as possible, even though the collective result of all of those individual optimal strategies is to drive the fish population to extinction. W. F. Lloyd first described this “tragedy of the commons,” or the overexploitation of a shared resource, almost 200 years ago.
The tragedy of the commons is fundamentally a mismatch between the scale of the decision maker(s) and the scale of the resource. In the presence of this mismatch, and the absence of communication and agreement among users, each user’s optimal economic strategy in exploiting a shared resource (a fishery, or, more generally, the commons) is to overexploit the resource, potentially driving it to extinction.
A similar mismatch has emerged in support for United States public universities. Until now, public universities, like public schools, have been primarily funded locally: public schools through a combination of local and state support, and universities largely at the state level. Historically, most graduates stayed local, and most of the hiring was local. Thus, each individual participant (for example, a local business) in a local community received much of the benefit of their investment, motivating investment commensurate with the benefits of the university. State support of public universities matched the scale of users of these universities, and state investment in their public universities benefited the state population and businesses.
In contrast, if far fewer graduates stayed local, and much of hiring were significantly broader based (for example, national or global), an individual participant would logically choose to invest little or nothing in their local public universities. The logic parallels the classical tragedy of the commons, where individual users (herdsman or fisherman), acting independently, together overexploit a common resource because each has essentially no ownership of the resource. In this case, each participant underinvests because they receive only a small benefit from investing in the shared resource -- the scales of statewide investment and broader national usage do not match. The results are also similar: namely collapse of the common resource.
This reverse tragedy of the commons describes the present-day United States. Public universities have become national resources, not merely state resources, providing benefits both in the state and outside of it. The educated population is highly mobile, and businesses recruit and hire their best-educated employees on a national or global scale.
Thus, federal support for public universities has grown in recent years because the scale of federal decision making and investment matches the national scale of usage of public universities. But meanwhile, state support has fallen sharply because the scale of state decision making and investment does not match the national scale of the hiring and mobility of the well educated.
Reductions in state support not only harm the quality and affordability of public universities; they also trigger further reductions in support. Business can hire out of state, even outside the United States. Those seeking science, engineering and technology workers can use the H-1B visa program to access a global talent pool. Students who are able can choose to attend out-of-state or private universities.
To fill the gap in state support, public universities can pursue out-of-state students to increase revenue. But states like California have been publicly pressured to reduce out-of-state admissions in favor of in-state students. Another possibility -- raising tuition -- both reduces opportunities for students and makes state universities less competitive economically.
Meanwhile, those strategies don’t really address the collapse of support for public education -- and its negative consequences. (It’s worth noting, for example, that all 13 Nobel laureates at City University graduated between 1933 and 1963 -- none did during the disinvestment in the 1970s and later.) And they all further weaken the case for state taxpayer support, driving a downward spiral in state support for public universities.
User Communities on a National Scale
How can this spiral toward collapse of public universities be stopped? Fisheries management suggests two alternative but complementary approaches, both based upon the concept of an optimal strategy for the user community as a whole. One approach to managing fisheries is to regulate the total harvest at a sustainable level and then to apportion the harvest to fishermen in one of several ways: restrict the season, restrict the effort or adopt a system of catch shares.
The analog for funding universities would be to provide funding at a sustainable level on a suitable scale and then allocate enrollment. That is the current model in Germany and the Nordic countries, reflecting “deeply rooted social values, such as equality of opportunity and social equity” (OECD report, 2015). That model was once common in the United States before public support lost pace with increasing costs and tuition was introduced to make up the shortfall. Examples include the University of California system and City University of New York. New York State’s community colleges were created on an analogous but explicit shared-funding model: one-third funding each from the state, local sponsors and students.
We can and should move toward a more significant national component of a shared funding model, as a partial replacement for the failing present approach of state funding. But perhaps we simply need to start with more open communication about the benefits of investment in public higher education.
Elinor Ostrom, the 2009 Nobel laureate in the economic sciences, essentially called for the emergence of user communities of beneficiaries of a common resource, such as a university, who understand and together effectively manage their common resource, generating a match between the scale of a common resource and the community of its users. As she stated in her Nobel lecture, “Isolated, anonymous individuals overharvest from common-pool resources. Simply allowing communication, or ‘cheap talk,’ enables participants to reduce overharvesting and increase joint payoffs … Large studies of irrigation systems in Nepal and forests around the world challenge the presumption that governments always do a better job than users in organizing and protecting important resources.” In particular, “resources in good condition have users with long-term interests, who invest in monitoring and building trust.”
In fact, private universities have also needed to develop and cultivate their own user communities to generate adequate support and have experienced some striking contrasts. Overall alumni giving rates have fallen significantly, but colleges and universities with a well-identified sense of community have experienced increased overall giving and high alumni giving rates. This trend brings hope for the future.
We need to build upon this concept to better support public higher education on a broad, national scale. To this end I offer several concrete suggestions to galvanize a national user community. We should:
Develop a unified voice as stakeholders. Public universities are represented by the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities, the Association of American Universities, and the American Association of State Colleges and Universities. Their membership forms a complex Venn diagram. For example, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill is a member of APLU and AAU but not AASCU, while many other UNC campuses are members of APLU and AASCU but not AAU. There are also separate organizations for private nonprofit universities, for community colleges and for university faculty. Although all of those associations have similar agendas for improving funding for and access to the higher educational common, a unified single voice for public universities could speak more effectively to further a common agenda.
Communicate more effectively to the public. We must make the case that support for broad access to higher education is a mission-critical national investment, in the spirit of the post-Sputnik space program and the war on cancer. More budget transparency and improved public outreach are key components.
Speak on behalf of a broad national user community of stakeholders in higher education. A partnership including industry, as well as between public and private universities, is needed. I applaud AAU President Mary Sue Coleman’s address “Saving Public Higher Education” at the 2016 World Academic Summit, and in particular her statement “Public universities are the workhorses of American teaching and research. And the benefits to society are powerful.” Although she notes that there are no private research universities in a majority of states, the AAU itself recognizes the value of a broad public-private effort by including 26 private research universities in America among its 62 member institutions. Public and private universities should be coming together to support their common mission and generate increased public support for all.
Advocate for more national-scale support, while preserving the independence of public and private universities. Such a program could perhaps be modeled upon a combination of existing federal grants, the National Merit Scholarship Program, Pell Grants and ROTC (as a model of public service).
In summary, we in higher education must work together to build a more active and effective national user community, one that acts on its collective responsibility to support its commons -- the public universities of the United States -- with increased national-scale support.
Harold M. Hastings is professor emeritus at Hofstra University and an adjunct faculty member in the sciences at Bard College at Simon’s Rock. These opinions are his own.
Today’s presidential election will not fix the broken relationship between Democrats and voters who did not finish college. In the aftermath, will there be anything that universities can do to help with this?
The New York Times recently published a piece about electoral divisions, “Go Midwest, Young Hipster,” that starts with the fact that Republicans get far more representation for their votes than do Democrats. In Ohio, for example, Republicans translated a 51 percent statehouse voting majority into a 75 percent majority of legislators, which gives the party’s slight majority a near fiat power over legislation.
But Alec MacGillis, the article’s author, argues that this problem cannot be handled by reforming the creation of electoral districts. Republicans are great gerrymanderers, it's true, but the underlying problem is that Democrats clump together in blue states and in giant blue cities where most of their votes are superfluous.
The title suggests his solution: Democrats have to move back to the depopulating red states and counties from which they sprang. Unfortunately for this idea, all the people he interviews who could do that -- the native Ohioans who have professional careers in Washington or Los Angeles -- say no way in hell. Wild horses couldn’t drag them out of the land of surplus blue voters and their urban overload of interesting jobs and “creative class” culture.
MacGillis’s piece moves a step beyond the vision of Barack Obama, who reportedly will devote some of his postpresidential career to reducing Republican gerrymandering. There’s only so much that better redistricting can do after The Big Sort has segregated the population in large part by whether or not one graduated from college.
And yet the same is true about the voluntary return that MacGillis advocates. His red-state escapees tell him they won’t do it, so the whole project is doomed from the start.
What locks in the doom is the entire patronizing framework in which MacGillis sees Ohio as place in need of creative class enlightenment -- and in which the social role of public universities is to help people escape their region rather than develop it.
College folks often write about noncollege people as though they were backwoods barbarians who need the civilizing influence of collegiate urbanites. Terms like “red states” and “Midwest” stand for the country’s primitive places. Many analysts apply the same cultural deficiency theory to working-class whites that others have applied to black and brown people. In the case of Charles Murray, it’s the same analyst doing it. Instead of the white man’s burden, MacGillis creates a college man’s burden to return to the red-state jungle to help the natives who didn’t have the brains to escape. You can imagine how the natives feel about that kind of help.
This tradition was codified in Thomas Frank’s influential book, What’s the Matter With Kansas (Henry Holt and Company, 2004), which, for all its strengths, was wrong to say that pro-Republican whites couldn’t see their self-interest and vote for it. Even Michael Moore’s attempt to embrace working-class Trump voters teetered into treating them as abuse victims who can’t think straight (around the halfway point in his interview with Megyn Kelly on Fox News). Presenting red-state dwellers as the nation’s regressives is an ethical, strategic and factual blunder of major proportions.
Neglecting the University’s Core Mission
There’s also a blunder on the politics of knowledge. For several decades, the Democrats have helped underdevelop the industrial belt by heralding the coming of a knowledge economy in which all American “routine production workers,” in Robert Reich’s Clinton-era formulation, were doomed to permanent decline. Wealth creation would henceforth flow from the brainwork of “symbolic analysts.”
The Clintons were fountainheads of this vision of nonuniversity people as the new vanishing Americans. They threw people bones like job retraining programs but didn’t tell them they had anything still to contribute. The Clinton Democrats philosophically abandoned the New Deal and Great Society programs of public works for everyday people, helped to criminalize much of the deindustrialized black working class through such policies as harsher sentencing minimums and disparities in drug sentencing, and refused the large-scale economic redevelopment (coupled with penalties for offshoring jobs) that only the federal government could perform.
Barack Obama has been a chip off the old block. Thus working-class people are still mad at the establishment Democrats and have been willing to listen to Bernie Sanders as well as to Donald Trump. Our college-graduate condescension may yet keep Hillary Clinton out of the White House or, assuming she gets in, keep her from getting anything done.
Here we arrive at the other huge problem: Which side is the public university on? MacGillis offers a standard casting of college as a circus cannon for human capital that fires its cannonball-graduates over their local region into the big cities that can make use of them. That neglects the core mission of public colleges and universities in enabling regional development. Since the Morrill Act in 1862, public colleges have had the public-good obligation of taking nonelite local people and helping them be what they and their community have wanted them to be: better farmers, or machinists, or doctors, or surveyors, or teachers, or politicians, or whatever their needs and desires actually are.
The political principle has been that colleges and universities offer the democratic capabilities on which regional progress depends. At the top of my own list are deep cross-racial experience and comfort with indirect causality. (Donald Trump’s noir power rests on the ability of many people to believe in one-step solutions to complex problems, like “I’ll be reducing taxes tremendously … That’s going to be a job creator like we haven’t seen since Ronald Reagan.”) These are just two examples of the many public-good capabilities that develop a region rather than use it as a launching pad to upper-class life elsewhere.
Democrats have been faced with a choice between stressing the public-good or the private-good benefits of public colleges and universities. They have mostly picked door No. 2 and have been as eager as Republicans to stress the wage benefits of graduation and the pecuniary payoff of the whole college operation. In this way, Democrats have played an important role in cutting public funding and raising public college tuition. They have also cooperated in increasing nonresident enrollment at state-supported institutions.
That has played into Republican hands. If college is mainly a private good, then families who don’t attend have no reason to pay taxes for it. If university research is about making money, then private investors rather than government should pay for it. In reality, private market benefits are about one-third of the total benefits of higher education. Democrats in politics and academe have abetted the great ignoring of public-good benefits, and enabled gross public underinvestment.
Remobilizing the People’s Support
Public universities are going to recover only if they rebuild their popular base. That will involve direct contributions to regional development that go beyond the usual touting of tech start-ups (which go to the same handful of cities and employ almost no one). They will need to do two things at once.
First, the less-selective public institutions that most American students attend -- places like the University of Wisconsin at Eau Claire or the University of North Carolina at Greensboro -- will need budgetary reinvestment so they can match the level of learning that occurs at wealthier campuses. Lower-income or first-generation students need conceptual intensity and complexity at least as much as affluent students at a flagship majoring in history on their way to an Ivy League law school.
Second, public universities will need to make the college a meaningful presence in the lives of noncollege people. They are doing this one by one -- Clark University’s involvement in local education is an example. In the decades in which community relations has become a low-status activity, Republican propaganda has convinced most nongraduates that universities are hotbeds of people who look down on them and are probably trying to get rid of their jobs (logging, coal, trucking, smokestack manufacturing). This reputation can be fixed with more systematic effort.
Regional colleges will need to demand state refunding for the project of bringing all the local folks to college who want to be there, at whatever age, coupled with contributing more visibly to local social and cultural (and not just economic) development. Elite public universities will need to shift their focus from wealthy donors to regular people, who have very different priorities. The fixation on fund-raising has raised money for many important programs, but it has also narrowed the university’s own vision of its public contributions and cut it off from its popular base.
A few of weeks ago, I outlined emerging international trends that American universities should use to remobilize their popular base. The same forces are at work here, and they could serve as the university’s special power.
The public university needs a broader popular base for its own survival. But this would also help the country. Rather than tacitly casting the red states, counties and precincts as cultural backwaters, universities would mobilize local red-state insights and Midwestern cultural strengths to reduce the mutual alienation between them and the self-designated creative zones. My bet is that colleges that define their missions as general development, rooted in respect for people of all educational levels, will no longer be targeted by voters as ivory towers serving blue-state elites.
Christopher Newfield teaches literature and American Studies at University of California, Santa Barbara, and is the author of The Great Mistake: How We Wrecked Public Universities and How We Can Fix Them, just published by Johns Hopkins University Press.
Growing up in a low-income family, David Machado knew he would have to find creative ways to pay for college.
After graduating from high school in Florida in 2004, he joined the U.S. Navy for the Post-9/11 GI Bill benefits and a chance to gain medical experience as a hospital corpsman. And when he went into the reserves in 2010 to have more time to focus on his education, he enrolled in community college, first in North Carolina and then in Connecticut.
Though he had been planning to transfer to a state school or the University of Connecticut, an English teacher convinced him Wesleyan University in Middletown, Conn., would be a good fit, allowing him to pursue his passions for poetry and painting and his childhood goal of becoming a doctor.
“I fell in love with writing and what he taught, and he’d talk about Wesleyan,” said Machado, now 29.
But his road to transfer wasn’t always smooth. He didn’t find out about a program for automatic transfer to UConn until he had too many credits to qualify. His community college adviser didn’t answer his emails, so he had to drop into his office to get help. Eventually he gave up on the adviser, relying instead on the advice of professors and others, who led him to other opportunities like a summer medical education program at Yale.
Still, he didn’t always take the right classes in his two years in community college.
“I didn’t understand the transferability of classes at the time, so I was just taking classes that would be of interest and would satisfy the pre-med requirements,” Machado said. Because many of his classes only transferred as electives, and some as three credits instead of four, Machado entered Wesleyan as a sophomore.
Though as many as 80 percent of community college students want to transfer, a study by the Community College Research Center, the Aspen Institute and the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center released in January found that only 14 percent of degree-seeking students earned a bachelor’s within six years. And research has found many pitfalls in the process of transferring from a community college to a four-year school.
Frequently, students at community colleges are advised to take courses that end up not being accepted by the local four-year campus. When courses transfer, many are accepted only as electives and do not count toward the students’ majors. In other instances, the prerequisite courses students need to transfer with junior standing aren’t offered in a given term, and so students either lose time waiting to take the courses or have to transfer and take them at the higher university cost. Research conducted by Public Agenda on the student experience of transfer found that a number of recurring themes are embedded in the stories of students like the one above:
Well-meaning but overwhelmed and underprepared general advisers at community colleges who lack the time and resources to provide students with correct and up-to-date information about degree pathways;
Faculty advisers who are critically important but dangerously siloed;
Diffuse and scattered information resources on transfer that students have difficulty accessing or effectively navigating;
A lack of clear programs of study that carry through the community college into the four-year institution and through graduation;
Insufficient or dysfunctional channels of communication between faculty and staff within and across two-year and four-year institutions, fueled by institutions’ cultural histories of suspicion and competition.
For first-generation and lower-income students, unconfident learners and students who lack clear goals, the stakes of these challenges are particularly high. Public Agenda research found that community college students often blame themselves for the barriers they face in seeking to transfer. Students not only lose time and money as they attempt to navigate broken systems, they also lose hope in their ability to make a better life through education.
In focus groups conducted by the Center for Community College Student Engagement at the University of Texas at Austin, students shared some of their frustrations with the transfer process.
I’d rather look for myself than ask for somebody to answer the questions, because I’ve had cases where those questions weren’t answered correctly, and since they’re not answered correctly it’s a big, big mistake. … If you miss a deadline because somebody answered your question wrong, you start getting skeptical about the advice you’re getting.
A quote from Public Agenda’s research captures the hope deficit that is created through the problems community college transfer students face.
I’m getting tired of school. I had a plan and thought I was doing everything right, and everyone I talked to [at the school] seemed so sure they were giving me the right information, so I never questioned it because I had no idea what I was doing. But here I am and I’ve probably lost two whole semesters taking classes I didn’t need or that ended up not transferring or counting toward my major. I don’t even want to think about the money I lost, because I couldn’t afford to lose it … at this point, honestly, I don’t know if I’m ever going to finish. I’m just getting tired.
The stories of transfer students show the dogged persistence needed to make it.
Jordan Kratz came out of high school in 2012 planning to be a veterinary technician. She chose SUNY Canton in northern New York for its specialized curriculum. But by the spring of her second year, Kratz, from Ballston Spa, N.Y., decided she didn’t want to work with animals full time and applied to transfer to Ithaca College.
“I actually did a total flip,” she said in a recent interview. “I’m in communications management and design.”
Kratz, now 21, dived into research on four-year colleges with the help of her parents and advice from friends. She didn’t turn to her adviser, who was a veterinarian experienced in helping students going to veterinary school.
“I didn’t know if he would have the advice for me that I was looking for,” she said.
The Ithaca admissions office was helpful, answering questions and offering tours, but it wasn’t until she enrolled that she got the full story on how her Canton credits would apply to requirements at Ithaca. Because Ithaca has a very specific core curriculum, many of Kratz’s credits only transferred for general credit.
“On my transcript it just says, ‘transfer elective,’” she said. “It doesn’t even say what the course was.”
In order to catch up, she has to take a series of courses in humanities, creative arts, social sciences and diversity on top of the upper-division courses in her major. But because she has senior standing, the registration system locks her out of the core classes designated for freshmen and sophomores.
“I’m actually having a hard time getting into them as a transfer student,” she said. By the time she files the override paperwork and, if that fails, appeals to the dean, the classes are full.
“You would think when they know you’re a transfer student they would override you into those classes,” Kratz said.
With four more core classes to go, in addition to other requirements, she’s hoping to graduate in the spring of 2017. By then she will have many more credits than she needs to graduate, even after having taken a semester off as she transferred.
“If I did the typical four years in college I should graduate this May,” she said.
Creating the conditions for more students to successfully transfer with junior standing in their majors is the collective work of institutions, systems and policy makers. Students share in the responsibility, but systems need to work better for the majority of students who come to community college with fewer supports and less confidence than Kratz.
As institutional leaders and policy makers seek to diagnose and address a tremendous host of challenges facing transfer students, elevating the voices and perspectives of students themselves is an essential piece of the work to be done.
Alison Kadlec is senior vice president and director of higher education and workforce programs at Public Agenda. Elizabeth Ganga is a communications specialist at the Community College Research Center at Columbia University's Teachers College.
Improved transfer pathways from community colleges to four-year institutions may be the best answer to America's college completion woes, say three influential groups that will prod states and colleges on transfer.