American higher education faces an unprecedented crisis. To fully comprehend its nature, one must place it in the broader context of the neoliberal attack on working people. The tenets of neoliberalism are the rule of markets, cutting taxes on the wealthy, reducing public expenditures that support working and middle class families, mass incarceration of African American males, deregulation, privatization, and the elimination of public goods. Growing levels of income inequality and the destruction of the “middle class” measure the success of this agenda.
In public higher education, we have seen concerted defunding accompanied by corporatization of institutions, e.g. the metastatic growth of administrative spending. The resulting rising tuition fees and skyrocketing student debt are all part of the broader campaign aimed at privatization and the elimination of public goods.
Waning state support
Between 2001 and 2015, state support for higher education per student declined by $2,408. This decline accelerates the defunding of public higher education that began in the 1980s. As noted above, tuition hikes have ensued. Rapidly rising tuition combined with stagnating wages has created a crisis of affordability.
Indeed, tuition growth has significantly exceeded overall inflation. Looking again at 2001 to 2015, real median family income has fallen $4,861, a decline of nearly 8.6%; but at public four-year institutions, where tuition growth has been sharpest, real net tuition increased $1,570, an increase of 108%.
Despite rising tuition, state funding cuts have resulted in a decline in resources available to educate students of $838 per student. Between 1990 and 2014, average state spending for higher education dropped from $9.74 to $5.45 per $1,000 of personal income. So students are paying much more, but not enough to offset state disinvestment in public higher education.
Again, rising tuition and falling real incomes have led to skyrocketing student debt. It has passed the $1.2 trillion mark and now exceeds all credit card debt. The average debt of students who borrowed to get undergraduate degrees at public institutions grew from $20,900 in 2001 to $25,600 in 2013. The percentage of students who borrowed has increased from 52% to 59%.
Serving corporate interests
The neoliberal agenda in higher education has transformed what was a world-class system of public higher education, whose goal was to provide a high quality education with a strong foundation in liberal arts and sciences at a price within reach of most families, into a system more suited to serve corporate interests.
Now at the top of our higher education system are the elite private universities, funded with large endowments, where most of our top corporate leaders and politicians are educated. Below these are the top public research universities, educating large numbers of corporate leaders and engaging in high levels of research, largely funded from federal sources, much of which ultimately can be commercialized.
Below this top tier are the majority of public and private universities and colleges, and below them lie community colleges with their emphasis on vocational training. These institutions, especially the public ones, are increasingly pressured to emphasize training certification and degree completion. Likewise, when research is undertaken at all, it is likely to applied research aimed at economic development, a code for private profit.
Corporations want a bountiful supply of highly skilled but docile workers. They want productivity but not well-educated citizens, those who might question growing levels of inequality, mass incarceration, environmental degradation, the defunding of public schools and higher education, and other social ills. They want applied research they can transform into private profit.
To accomplish this goal of transforming higher education from serving the public good to serving corporate interests, the neoliberals first must undermine the ability of faculty and students to resist. And the way to undermine faculty ability to resist is to eliminate academic freedom and shared governance long enjoyed by tenure-eligible faculty, replacing them with contingent faculty having little employment security.
To resist these changes, faculty must see themselves as “one faculty,” putting aside differences that have historically divided tenure-eligible from contingent faculty. Faculty must organize, unionizing where possible and engaging in other collective action. They must support increased public funding for higher education paid for by tax increases on the wealthy. Most importantly, faculty must view their struggle to save American higher education as part of a broader movement to fight the neoliberal agenda, building alliances with others who support social justice, and winning the support of students, parents, political leaders and others in their communities by explaining the importance of higher education as a public good.