“The Balance Wheel of Social Machinery” – Universal Public Higher Education

In Budget Politics, California, Education Reform, History and Politics, Liberalism, New Deal, Politics of Policy, Public Policy, Social Democracy, Social Policy on July 23, 2009 at 12:56 pm

“Education, then, beyond all other devices of human origin, is the great equalizer of the conditions of men, — the balance-wheel of the social machinery. I do not here mean that it so elevates the moral nature as to make men disdain and abhor the oppression of their fellow-men. This idea pertains to another of its attributes. But I mean that it gives each man the independence and the means by which he can resist the selfishness of other men. It does better than to disarm the poor of their hostility towards the rich: it prevents being poor.”

– Horace Mann, 12th Annual Report to the Massachusetts State Board of Education (1848)

In my previous post about education, I mentioned that the education reform debate has largely skirted the problem of affordability of higher education, preferring to direct their attention more towards college preparation and the K-12 system. As I said at the time, one of the things that unsettles me about the “Educational Equality Project” type of education “reformer” is the extreme economistic trend of their thought – education is about getting jobs and making the workforce more production, hence the extreme emphasis on reading, writing, math, and science, as opposed to anything about art and music, or history. I may be overly broad here in my description, and if I am, I apologize, but it’s to a point. The purpose of public education is not to meet the needs of the labor market – it is to meet the needs of democracy.

Obama’s recent proposal to pump an additional $12 billion over the next ten years into community colleges speaks to something of this tension. On the one hand, he makes the economic argument that “We will not fill those jobs, or keep those jobs on our shores, without the training offered by community colleges;” on the other, he ties the public investment in education to the broader goal of democratizing the economy. “Time and again, when we placed our bet for the future on education, we have prospered as a result …that’s what happened when President Lincoln signed into law legislation creating the land grant colleges, which not only transformed higher education, but also our entire economy.  That’s what took place when President Roosevelt signed the GI Bill which helped educate a generation, and ushered in an era of unprecedented prosperity.  That was the foundation for the American middle class.”


Obama’s invocation of the Morrill land grant colleges and the GI bill should remind us that one of the great American virtues, almost from the beginning, is a faith in the virtue of democratic education. George Washington was a lifetime proponent of a National University, the purpose of which, he said, was “the education of our Youth in the science of Government. In a Republic, what species of knowledge can be equally important? And what duty, more pressing on its Legislature, than to patronize a plan for communicating it to those, who are to be the future guardians of the liberties of the Country?” In his repeated addresses to Congress on the topic, Washington linked the establishment of a national public institution of higher education with the future of the Union itself: “‘In the general, juvenile period of life, when friendships are formed and habits established that will stick by one, the youth from different parts of the United States would be assembled together and would, by degree, discover that there was not just cause for those jealousies and prejudices, which one part of the union imbided against one another.”

The Morrill Land Grant Act of 1862 was not merely about establishing agricultural programs. Co-written by a merchant’s clerk who never attended college and a schoolteacher and signed into law by a President who had perhaps one year of formal education at a time when only the sons of gentlemen attended college, it was also an aspirational statement about the kind of society that the party of “free soil, free labor, and free men” wanted to build – one where higher education would be “accessible to all, but especially to the sons of toil.” In its own way, too, the City College of New York, the oldest free public institution of higher education, was a radical institution from the very beginning. Its founder called upon the state of New York to “Open the doors to all… Let the children of the rich and the poor take their seats together and know of no distinction save that of industry, good conduct and intellect;” its first president summarized CCNY’s mission thusly – “The experiment is to be tried, whether the children of the people, the children of the whole people, can be educated; and whether an institution of the highest grade, can be successfully controlled by the popular will, not by the privileged few.”

And of course, in 1960, Governor Pat Brown’s Master Plan for Higher Education in California grounded its call for a revolutionary three-stage system of the University of California, California State University, and Community Colleges on the principle that “state colleges and the University of California shall be tuition free to all residents of the state.”

The point of this extensive exegesis is that the purpose of public higher education has always been about, contrary to Obama’s speech, more than even just democratizing the economy.  It has always been about making a more democratic society, whether it be forging a national identity, abolishing social distinctions, state provision of a universal public good, or providing a vehicle for the children of the poor to seek their education freely.

Current Situation:

So where does this noble legacy of democratic education stand today? Well, two weeks ago I received the following email from UC President Mark Yudof, effectively sending out a fiscal SOS to the UC community:

“In the past 20 years, the amount of money allotted to the University through the state budget has fallen dramatically: General Fund support for a UC student stood at $15,860 in 1990. If current budget projections hold, it will drop this year to $7,680.

Moreover, it now appears likely the UC system, in this current fiscal crisis, will be ordered by Sacramento to absorb yet another $800-plus million in additional cuts. Its 2009-10 core budget will be reduced by an estimated 20 percent. This will bring the amount of state investment in the University down to $2.4 billion – exactly where it was in real dollars a decade ago.”

This then is the bitter fruit of the compact signed between Governor Schwarzenegger and then-UC President Dynes, which supposedly at the time was going to “bring the promise of renewed fiscal stability for public universities in California.” The ultimate result, however, has been a near-perfect execution of Shock Doctrine, effectively destroying a decade’s worth of efforts to improve and expand public funding for higher education – a slow-motion privatization, if you will. At the same time that the U.C has been struggling with one funding crisis after another, despite the promises of the compact, the result has been a massive shift of economic burdens from the state and the university onto the student body. As I noted previously, the cost of attending the U.C has now doubled, from the less than $4000 per year in 2003 to more than $8000 in 2009. At the current rate of progress (10% increase in tuition per year), the U.C’s in-state tuition will be indistinguishable from the private university average in twelve years. In my eyes, this constitutes an enormous tax on the student body and their families.

And this is hardly just a California story. As this article points out, the University of Washington’s 26% cut also drops its state funding back by a decade, the University of Illinois’ fee increases are on-pace with the U.C’s, and SUNY is even outpacing the U.C with a 14%. The larger problem is that the limited fiscal capacity of states to deal with recessions, the Federal inattention to the cost of higher education for the last eight years, and the broader anti-tax politics that have gripped this nation have meant tha public university is an easy target. State and federal legislators looking to make cuts-only budgets see institutions that can raise private funds and increase fees and hand down cuts that would be unthinkable in other areas, banking on fund raising and tuition hikes to keep the public universities running.

This crates two larger problems. The first is the privatization of the public university – a public university is a public trust, a place that is supposed to cultivate democratic citizenship, to create the expertise that governments can make use of in making public policy decisions, and a place which embodies the ideals of a better society. The second is ever-increasing inequality –  as the burden of education increases on students, the result is a generation whose future life choices are increasingly determined by the pressures of ever-mounting debt, and increasing class inequality between those whose families can pull the full freight and those who must support themselves. As research has shown, the children of the affluent go to college at a higher rate than the children of the poor – even when the children of the poor perform higher academically than the children of the rich. Compare, for example, the difference in attendance rates between the 4th quintile (highest-achieving) students from families making less than $20k a year and students from the 3rd or 2nd quintiles from families making more than $100k a year. Clearly, it is better to be born lucky than smart.


While the gross disparities between the richest and the poorest ought to shock the conscience of any American who cherishes our national mythos of opportunity, egalitarianism, and meritocracy, it’s also true that people everywhere often show a less sharp concern for the plights of others than their own misfortunes. But take a second look at that chart, and you see than class inequality goes all the way down the line, with the children of the merely affluent doing less well than the children of the rich, and the children of the middle class less well than the children of the affluent, and so on – even with children of roughly equal ability and achievement. Rarely have I seen a more clear case for a cross-class community of interest.

So how do we move, as it were, forward to the past?

Morrill 2.0 – Universal, Public Higher Education for All:

  • Federal/State Endowment Assistance – given the many failures of the existing per-student assistance system and the way that it has bogged us down in a patchwork of student loans and aid, and the vulnerability of this system to economic shocks, instead we should establish a system whereby the Federal governments and the states collaborate to provide a one-time $5 billion addition to the endowment (to be held in long-term T-Bills, no investing the money in derivatives or other fashionable ventures) of each state university, gradually phasing it in university by university over the next ten years (yearly cost – $25 billion). This money should be based on a guarantee of tuition-free education based on in-state rates, with modest fees for out-of-state students.
  • Independent Financing of State Universities – along the same lines,  moving the state universities from a miserly yearly appropriations to a steady source of public funds, one alternative that presents itself is A.B 656 in the California state legislature (or whatever version of A.B 656 might become a proposition), which proposes an oil excise tax to fund higher education in California, similar to the way that oil taxes fund the University of Texas. Obviously, not all states have major oil revenue, but most states do have some industry that is the center of the economy, and it is only fair for the industry in question to kick in some money to pay for the education of the college graduates it needs. Hence, I could see a small tax on stock transactions to fund SUNY, since Wall Street needs huge numbers of college grads, and so on and so forth. This industry excise tax should also be balanced with a guarantee to keep tuition low and enrollment expanding (as well as the number of campuses) to maintain access to public higher education.
  • Exporting the Brown Model – the evolution of the Morrill land grant colleges has meant that, in a country supposedly dominated by federalism, we actually have a rather standard pattern of having a single state university that more often than not is a large, Research 1 institution. However, I would argue that we need to, over the long term, popularize the three-tier system of state universities, state colleges, and a unified system of community colleges across the 50 states, if we are to truly expand higher education to all students who are ready and interested in furthering their education.
  • Higher Education Means Vocational Education Too – in my previous post, I talked in general terms abou the lack of attention paid to vocational training and technical education and the somewhat veiled contempt that some education reformers seem to have for non-academic higher education. Simply put, not everyone wants to go to college or will ever be happy in college, and while generally our economy is becoming more reliant on education, it would be a mistake to assume that we are going to move to 100% of the population with a college diploma and a white-collar job. To begin with, the current situation masks the extent to which problems with our K-12 education system has led employers to use bachelor’s degrees to substitute for high school diplomas in straining their candidate pools for people who are literate, numerate, and know how to do basic tasks like use a computer, write a memo, operate a spreadsheet, read technical documents, give a presentation, etc. Secondly, as the American economy develops, we are going to need more and more skilled labor  that require some form of certification that is not college-oriented – as we develop a “green economy” based on “alternative energy,” we’re going to need a lot of electricians to install new grids, new wiring systems, solar panels and wind farms, and so forth, and you don’t go to a traditional 4-year college to learn to be an electrician. Hence, I would recommend extending our guarantee of higher education for all to be a guarantee to technical education, vocational education, and apprenticeship/job training programs, paying the way at, say, state college or community college rate for any student who agrees to stick through the program. But the point is that the choice to go into academic or technical education should be freely chosen, without the consideration of cost.
  1. […] to vocational training and technical education and the somewhat veiled contempt that some education Read more Share and […]

  2. […] are workers as well as students. To that end, it is not enough to ensure that higher education should be universal and free, when such an approach leaves out the roughly 75% of young people who don’t go on to college. […]

  3. […] because an educated citizenry is essential for a well-ordered republic, and because “Education, then, beyond all other devices of human origin, is the great equalizer of the conditions ….” In a republic, where the mental and material basis for independence are so important for […]

  4. […] my previous posts on higher education, I’ve tried to get across the idea that the purpose of public higher […]

  5. […] I have argued in the past, we have to stop thinking about higher education as just a matter of job training – it is […]

  6. […] model and make that a binding commitment upon the U.C regents. At the same time, work to build a Federal/State Endowment Program: have the Federal and State governments kick in a one-time doubling of the U.C’s (and other […]

  7. […] from the realm of practical necessity to what once was called “the civilizing arts.” Free higher education is not a necessity – but it is a public good that both ensures the social mobility necessary […]

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