Some years ago when my older daughter began her college search and I realized with a panic that I knew nothing about college admission, I was thrilled with my discovery that an expensive private liberal arts college could cost less than UC Berkeley or UCLA in our home state. With a family income in the fourth quintile, she received several generous financial aid offers reducing our cost to about $16,000. The UC schools would have cost about $24,000 at the time. I had discovered one of the “secrets” of the college admission game, and I was hooked!
I now understand that this “secret” is really one of the great tragedies unfolding before us—the dismantling of public higher education. Last year, the University of Michigan received a mere 4.5% of its budget from state appropriations. The University of New Hampshire received only 7% of its funding from the state compared with 32% twenty years ago. Nationally, state and local spending for public university students has dropped to a 25-year low, while the percent of revenue required from tuition has tripled. For an average family in 1990, the sticker price at a state university was 17% of family income. Today, it’s 34%.
Our state universities came of age in the ‘60s. The backdrop was a generation of baby boomers in their teens, a space race with the Soviet Union, relatively high corporate and individual tax rates, and an expanding economy that invested in infrastructure, research, and education. There was a national consensus that a college degree was a public good and should be available to anyone who could compete regardless of ability to pay.
That consensus is now crumbling, a victim not just of a defeated adversary and historically low tax rates, but of a relentless campaign to devalue most things that require social funding. A few weeks ago, we learned that 23 public schools would be closed in Philadelphia as plans were being drawn to build a $315 million prison in a nearby suburb. The irony is inescapable, the priorities appalling. This is occurring in a state whose flagship university’s tuition is the highest of any in the country.
Pennsylvania is not the bad guy here. The crisis in higher education is national. In the 1990s, the U.S. was first in the world in the percentage of 25-34 year-olds with a college degree. Today, we’re #14. In 1997, 67% of all high school completers went on to enroll in college. Today, it’s stuck at 66%. Growing numbers of our young people are denied a college degree because the institutions that were supposed to be affordable to all are now unaffordable to most. If this trend continues, we might as well keep building more prisons.