Saving State U: Fixing Public Higher Education
reviewed by John Aubrey Douglass - June 28, 2010
In a short and engaging book, economist Nancy Folbre often lets the numbers tell the story. In Massachusetts, where she is a faculty member at the state university campus in Amherst, the state spending priorities go something like this: $2.6 billion in average annual taxes to help finance the Iraq war, $1.1 billion for prisons and law enforcement, and only $918 million for public higher education.
Folbre articulates the liberal lament of many in academe America does not pay enough attention to the health and vibrancy of its dominant public higher education sector, and states from Massachusetts to California have bought into misguided tax revolts that favor the rich and have failed to invest in their universities and colleges. But this not only characterizes a failed commitment to higher education; the malaise is part of an overall neglect in societal investments, in social services, and assuring a healthy distribution of wealth, that would make America a better and more economically competitive society.
Folbre says that this is a relatively new phenomenon. With an economists voice that is definitely more Galbraith than Friedman, she argues that Americas greatness in part comes from the notion of what she calls The Big Deal, essentially the idea of intergenerational transfer of wealth to the next generation via investment such as education. The daily individual transactions of commerce the buying and selling that goes on in markets represents only a small share of our true economy . . . Right now, public higher education is part of a collective deal we offer the younger generation (p. 12).
Part of that deal goes like this: If a student studies hard, successfully graduates from high school, the current generation of taxpayers then offers that student the opportunity to go to college. We then expect them to contribute, in turn, to the public good, in part by taxing some of their subsequent earnings to help the next generation go to college, and to help pay for Social Security and things like Medicare (pp. 11-12).
What is happening to The Big Deal now? Folbre spends much of her short narrative musing on the near death of that social contract at the hands of dont-tax-me voters and politicians, and even more directly to the out of proportion power of the privileged classes and lobbyists for corporations.
What gives the power-elite power among the electorate and in the halls of Congress and state capitols is a false dichotomy. The problem, states the author, is not an over-reaching government and taxes. Its a distributional problem, with the rich investing in political initiatives to reduce their federal income tax rates, employers successfully evading corporate income taxes, and many homeowners resisting property tax increases (p. 144).
Folbre reprimands the politics of doing much more for much less; she refuses to believe the modern mantra that we just cannot afford the kind of investment in public higher education we offered to previous generations.
Saving State U is a worthwhile read, expressing a viewpoint that many, including myself, share. But it is less a scholarly, rigorous analysis of the state of affairs in public higher education than a collection of interesting and informative musings, routed in Folbres lucid observations on the economic behaviors of modern society and a cavalcade of anecdotes many related to the persistent underfunding of the University of Massachusetts.
Among the story lines is Massachusetts own breed of tax revolts, the many tragedies of decreased public funding for public education in general, including rising student to faculty ratios and increased dependence on part-time lectures. Then there are the invidious attempts by university administrators to apply business models of efficiency, centralization, and incentivizing the behavior of the academy toward income generation. In a series of illuminating stories of life in the trenches as a faculty member, and as a chair of an economics department she describes the constant disinvestment and efforts at quasi-market responses, all creating a fiscal hell in which the consequences for teaching and learning are largely ignored.
She offers observations on the deleterious effects, or moral hazards of new accountability regimes that are largely based on simplistic performance indicators like standardized tests. There are also some pointed case examples of spineless politicians who see political advantage in a weakened government, damn the consequences on the general welfare.
But what of the future?
Although the title seems to indicate otherwise, the reader is not afforded much of a clear sense of how to actually save State U. The number one lesson offered? The higher education community, and its supporters, need to lobby more effectively in state capitols and among our taxpayers. This plea is in part informed by her own involvement in a series of efforts to Save UMass, and to counter the accumulative series of tax revolts and plummeting investment rates in education. The Great Recession has accelerated this path, and fear of an uncertain future for public higher education is one motivation for Folbres book.
In short, we need to show Americans how increased public support for higher education can help us realize our best ideals and address some of the most pressing problems facing the global economy. This is not exactly a new idea, but we are hampered by the decentralized nature of American higher education, with its great array of institutional types, and limited lobbying power at the state level and in Washington.
Beyond this rather obvious premise more money quickly - the particulars offered in Saving State U are haphazard. For one, advocates should, develop a plan to finance free public higher education for all who can prove that they will take good advantage of it (p. 144). At the federal level, Folbre desires a mandatory public service requirement for all college graduates, (p. 149) and a broadening of education benefits for veterans.
She wants selective public universities to move more boldly on issues of access to underrepresented minorities, including admissions policies that emphasize class rank in a high school over standardized tests, seeing a model in the Texas ten percent plan that focuses on grades. Georgias HOPE program is another model providing sustained financial support for college to students who achieve a B or greater in high school and continue that record into higher education (p. 154).
She is supportive of President Obamas initiatives, including direct loans, an increase in Pell Grants, and promises of support for Community Colleges although the earlier grand plans for funding were dropped in the budget battle over health care reform that occurred after the publication of Saving State U. Community colleges are a less developed component in public education systems along the East Coast. Folbre hopes for a much expanded effort to enroll more students in liberal arts and vocational programs, and applauds Massachusetts governor Deval Patricks proposal to make tuition free at all fifteen of the states community colleges by 2015.
She bemoans the fact that, Our top-ranked private colleges and universities also seem like socialism for the rich, but offers no formula for changing that. And there is a plea for public universities to, move away from the old business model based on minimizing costs and maximizing revenues toward a commitment to the common good (pp. 158-159).
The final paragraphs note that this pithy tour of the larger problems of American society and the consequences and admits that the authors effort is simply, an introductory course. We must await the ideas of others on how to develop actual remedies. I would argue that we have a pretty good literature on the nature of the problems facing public higher education, but need some fresh thinking on how to move forward. Her premise is that, Free public higher education is a viable goal (p. 160). I think that is highly unlikely; perhaps even a model that does not properly work in our postmodern, demographically diverse world. It all feels like the US is stuck in the mud, neither able to resurrect old, nor venture into new, models.