The attack on public education (and what we can do about it)

By Mike Tudoreanu

The University of Massachusetts is ostensibly a public institution. Yet, only 25 percent of its revenues come from state funding – a massive decline from 40 percent as recent as 10 years ago. The rest comes from students paying ever-increasing tuition and fees, and from private companies that attach a greater or lesser number of strings to their contributions.
With the shift from public to private funding, UMass is also becoming less of a university and more of a business. The policies of the administration are increasingly being dictated by the profit motive, instead of a desire to promote education and learning for its own sake. There has been a drive to link department funding to the amount of money raised by each department, effectively forcing them to work like private businesses. There have also been attempts to attract more out-of-state students simply because they pay more and the administration is gradually replacing tenure-track faculty with underpaid adjuncts.

UMass is not an isolated case. Similar things are happening at other public universities across the United States, and especially in Massachusetts. State funding shrinks, student fees skyrocket and administrations adopt corporate business practices with varying degrees of enthusiasm. Corporations themselves are getting in on the act, being more than happy to step in and take over the services no longer provided by universities. There is a movement to privatize state universities.

Massachusetts is further along that route than most states. According to the Almanac of Higher Education, tuition and fees at public four-year institutions in Massachusetts are 33 percent higher than the national average. For two-year institutions, it’s even worse: 49 percent higher than the national average. Financial aid per person in Massachusetts is almost precisely half the national average and funding for the most important need-based financial aid program in the state declined 53 percent from 1988 to 2008.

The fact that students pay more for less in Massachusetts than in the majority of states is bad enough; what’s worse is that costs keep going up. If this continues, it is not difficult to see the long-term consequences. High school graduates from poor households are already unable to afford college (which is one reason why so many of them are trapped in poverty). Increasing numbers of middle-income high school graduates will join them. The fewer and fewer middle-income students still able to afford college will have to rely more and more on loans, and graduate with ever-greater debt burdens. Higher education will increasingly become the domain of the wealthy elite, whose children will have less competition in the job market and will therefore be able to stay rich with minimal effort. Inequality will rise to new heights and social mobility will be a fading memory.

But it does not have to be that way. There are people fighting back. Last year, a movement began in California to oppose the budget cuts there. Students and faculty organized protests, strikes and there was even a case where students at UC Berkeley occupied a library in order to keep it open after the administration decided to shut it down on weekends due to budget cuts. Out of these struggles in California came a call for a National Day of Action to Defend Public Higher Education on March 4, 2010. The call was answered by students and faculty on many campuses across the United States, and tens of thousands of people participated in actions that day – including hundreds here at UMass, who marched to the Whitmore Administration Building to demand that the university should resist the drive to privatization and stop raising tuition and fees.

That was a great step in the right direction, but more pressure is needed to make both administrations and legislators understand that higher education must be made affordable. There is a second National Day of Action called for Oct. 7.

In Massachusetts, the organizing effort is led by the Public Higher Education Network of Massachusetts (PHENOM), an organization that unites students and professors to campaign for increased public funding of higher education. PHENOM is planning a March Across the State, starting at Berkshire Community College in Western Massachusetts on Oct. 2, and ending with a rally in front of the State House in Boston on Oct. 7. They will stop and organize events at several campuses along the way, including a stop at UMass Amherst on Oct. 3. But the big day remains Oct. 7, when PHENOM and other groups will be in Boston to remind state legislators that cutting funding for public education means throwing away our future. There will be buses available to take people from UMass to Boston that day, and hopefully we will have a large turnout.

The fact that we need to explain to our legislators why they should invest in education is a disgrace. The benefits of well-funded public education should be obvious: more innovation, more economic opportunities for young people, a more level playing field in the job market, less racial inequality (guess who gets hit hardest when college is expensive), less inequality in general, no more crushing debt for 20-somethings, more voters making informed decisions at the polls.

Well, ok, I can see why politicians might be worried about that last one. I can see why the wealthy would object to anything that can make it easier for ordinary people to climb up the social ladder. Those who are privileged want to remain privileged – and they certainly don’t want to share with the rest of us. But loud voices from the streets have changed their minds before, and they can do so again.

Mike Tudoreanu is a Collegian columnist. He can be reached at [email protected]