You are viewing the NationofChange archives. For the latest news and actions, visit the new
Get Email Updates | Log In | Register

Article image
Robert Reich
NationofChange / Op-Ed
Published: Thursday 1 March 2012
“Public higher education is being starved, and the middle class will shrink even more as a result.”

Stop Starving Public Universities and Shrinking the Middle Class

Last week Rick Santorum called the President “a snob” for wanting everyone to get a college education (in fact, Obama never actually called for universal college education but only for a year or more of training after high school).

Santorum needn’t worry. America is already making it harder for young people of modest means to attend college. Public higher education is being starved, and the middle class will shrink even more as a result.

Over just the last year 41 states have cut spending for public higher education. That’s on top of deep cuts in 2009 and 2010. Some public universities, such as the University of New Hampshire, have lost over 40 percent of their state funding; the University of Washington, 26 percent; Florida’s public university system, 25 percent.

Rising tuition and fees are making up the shortfall. This year, the average hike is 8.3 percent. New York’s state university system is increasing tuition 14 percent; Arizona, 17 percent; Washington state, 16 percent. Students in California’s public universities and colleges are facing an average increase of 21 percent, the highest in the nation.

The children of middle and lower-income families are hardest hit. Remember: The median wage has been dropping since 2000, adjusted for inflation.

Pell Grants for students from poor families are falling further behind; they now cover only about a third of tuition and fees. (In the 1980s, they covered about half; in the 1970s, more than 70 percent.)

Student debt is skyrocketing – the New York Federal Reserve Bank estimates it at $550 billion. Punitive laws enforce repayment, and it’s almost impossible to shed student loans in bankruptcy. There is no statue of limitations for non-repayment.

And yet, Santorum’s rant notwithstanding, good-paying jobs in America are coming to require a college degree. Globalization and rapid technological change are putting a premium on the ability to identify and solve new problems. A college degree is also a signal to prospective employers that a young person has what it takes to succeed.

That’s why the median annual pay of people with a bachelor’s degree was 70 percent higher than those with a high school diploma in 2009 (the latest Census data available).

But public higher education isn’t just a private investment. It’s a public good. Our young people — their capacities to think, understand, investigate, and innovate — are America’s future.

We used to understand this. During the great expansion of public higher education from the 1950s to the 1970s, tuition at public universities averaged about 4 percent of median family income (compared to around 20 percent at private universities).

Young Americans received college degrees in record numbers – creating a cohort of scientists, engineers, managers, and professionals that propelled the economy forward and dramatically expanded the middle class.

But starting in the 1980s, as in so many other areas of American life, we took a U-turn. Tuition at public universities began climbing. By 2005, it was more than 10 percent of median annual family income. Now it’s approaching 25 percent – still a good deal relative to private universities (where it’s nearly 70 percent), but high enough to discourage many qualified young people from attending.

Public higher education has been the gateway to the middle class but that gate is shutting – just when income and wealth are more concentrated at the top than they’ve been since the 1920s, and when America needs the brainpower of its young people more than ever.

This is nuts.

What’s the answer? Partly to make public universities more efficient. Every bureaucracy I’ve ever been associated with (and I’ve been in some very big ones) has some fat to be trimmed. Yet universities are necessarily labor-intensive enterprises; research and teaching can’t be outsourced abroad or turned over to computerized machine tools.

Another part of the answer is to raise tuition and fees for students from higher-income families and use the extra money to subsidize medium and lower-income kids. Even now relatively few pay the official sticker price; many receive some discount proportional to family income. But this won’t solve the underlying problem, ether.

A big part of the answer has to be more government support for public education at all levels. This requires more tax revenues – especially from Americans who are best able to pay.

Most Americans still believe in the ideal of equal opportunity. And most harbor the patriotic notion that we have responsibilities to one another as members of the same society.

The two principles lead to an obvious conclusion: America’s richest citizens have a duty to pay more taxes so kids from middle and lower-income families have chance to make it in America.

A pending initiative in California would raise taxes on millionaires and use the proceeds to fund public education at all levels. It’s a good idea, and it comes at the right time. Other states should follow.

This article was originally posted on Robert Reich's blog.

Author pic
ABOUT Robert Reich


ROBERT B. REICH, one of the nation’s leading experts on work and the economy, is Chancellor’s Professor of Public Policy at the Goldman School of Public Policy at the University of California at Berkeley. He has served in three national administrations, most recently as secretary of labor under President Bill Clinton. Time Magazine has named him one of the ten most effective cabinet secretaries of the last century. He has written thirteen books, including his latest best-seller, “Aftershock: The Next Economy and America’s Future;” “The Work of Nations,” which has been translated into 22 languages; and his newest, an e-book, “Beyond Outrage.” His syndicated columns, television appearances, and public radio commentaries reach millions of people each week. He is also a founding editor of the American Prospect magazine, and Chairman of the citizen’s group Common Cause. His widely-read blog can be found at Robert Reich's new film, "Inequality for All" is available on DVD
and blu-ray, and on Netflix in February.

It seems you need to go back

It seems you need to go back to school, most likely middle school!!!!!! What is a wielder? Do you mean welder? It is also a trade school not a trades school!!!!! On Long Island, New York $17 an hour wouldn't get you an apartment and a Honda. You would also have to give up eating. You are most likely an uneducated republican. You're totally out of touch with reality. Very sad that there are idiots out there like you!!!!!!

"Tax Em Like 1938"

"Tax Em Like 1938"

There is really a lot of

There is really a lot of potential to increase taxes on the very wealthy without much discomfort to the very wealthy. Just to bring the people who currently pay 13 to 17% (Mitt Romney or others who make their income through capital gains) up to the rate of the people making over $250,000 would go a long way to solving the debt problem for America. One year of that rate would likely pay all the current $550 Billion in student loan debt.

By focusing on America's Future we will be able to see beyond this election cycle to the aspirations we have for our country. Investments in students are investments in the public good, they will pay off.


The Moral Mission of Government is to Protect and Empower the People.

Let's make a stipulation.

Let's make a stipulation. Let's accept this assessment as a reasonable, if very partial, description of the current intersecting crises of higher education. In other words, let's just ignore the role of militarism in hijacking the federal budget, and other pertinent analytical points about why we're in the fix that we're in.

And let's also stipulate that Reich's statements about the importance of college--skill acquisition, critical thinking, and so forth--are extremely critical, even if, again, different people might want to add nuance and further analysis.

What about the author's suggestions about how we might address this imploding mess? They begin with the title of the piece, an imperative sentence that 'commands' those in power to "stop starving...Universities" and so forth. He then continues by suggesting tax policy changes and other bureaucratic reforms.

Do we really think that these will bring the changes that are necessary? This humble correspondent absolutely rejects such a paltry approach. We need student unions that take the battle to the streets, as has just transpired in Quebec; we need a slogan, like "Students, Parents, and Teachers, Unite!" for better schools; we need mass, organized loan defaults, in which groups of students 'collaterlize' and monetize the debts that they are refusing by turning them into 'Community and Job Enhancement Bonds' that they administer themselves.

If we're not willing to get a little radical and adventurous here, do we really think that anything will change? Inquiring minds want to know.

Well, does it have to be one

Well, does it have to be one or the other? Policy is important. The thing that bothers me most about the Occupy movement, which I support, is that it ignores policy at 5 feet above ground, and conflates anything that doesn't comport to a radical ideal as somehow completely flawed. The truth of the matter is that protest and policy need to work hand in hand. It's fine to demonstrate, but if you don't work *within* the power structure, you will fail. And if you don't redistribute the resources that are increasingly channelled to the few over the many (as RR suggests), you will fail.

The problem with the Occupy movement, which I support, is that it believes that all power structures are the same, and that both parties are the same. This is not true.

For example, having a march for women's reproductive rights is all well and good, for example, but the truth of the matter is that a concerted *Democratic* effort to overturn the Blunt legislation yesterday is what was needed. Voting that legislation down was real-world policy decision change that affected millions of women--for the better.

It's fine to rail about the inequities of our listing ship of state and to protest. But ignoring people who are in the halls of power--not just the streets of our country--is a grave error.

We're in a political and cultural cold civil war in this country, and those who would choose radical / adventuresome approaches need to understand and acknowledge policy and process that governs our world. You suggest some excellent ideas, but don't ignore real-world policy decisions, decision makers, and programmatic resources as if they're somehow irrelevant. They're not; not by a long shot.

Why do all of the morons out

Why do all of the morons out there think that a college education is only to get a job with a salary?

Is there no other benefit to studying the humanities, social sciences or sciences?
Does learning for its own sake affect the lives who sacrifice to do it?

We havce raised a nation that does not know how to think critically, or imbeciles a social extremists like Santorum would not receive any attention.

We have raised a nation of Philistines who believe the class warfare of Santorum and his religious sycophants.

First, you why "morons" think

First, you why "morons" think that a college education is the only (way) to get a job with a salary. RR, a thinker who's pretty much the opposite of a moron, wasn't stating that at all. In fact, he acknowledged that point in his first paragraph ("Obama never actually called for universal college education but only for a year or more of training after high school.") Then you rhetorically ask whether learning for its own sake affects the lives who sacrifice to do it, but then follow that up to explain how we're a country of philistines and imbeciles who can't think critically. Well, it seems your first few questions really do, in fact, address your last few declarative statements.

Critical thinking is often--and I would argue, primarily--gained through advanced education. It's not for everyone, obviously, but the point is that it should be available to as many people as possible. You correctly point out that we're not a smart country. I think that's true. But we're certainly going to become even less intelligent the more that education becomes an unaffordable burden for the many, while becoming increasingly the province of the wealthy. Other countries--European countries--make this a priority. We have the resources; we just let the right dictate our priorities, and education for them, isn't one.

This is exactly what the rightists in this country want--and they're succeeding. They want us all to be good sheeple, and RR offers a partial solution for rectifying that.

Response to Frank Hallman:

Response to Frank Hallman: Nice argument but misses the point. How many folks can become welders or other trade practitioners? How many can our economy absorb and employ? Don't we need a mix of job skills in the next generation of workers and isn't that what happens when we support public higher education? I just met a young man who is pursuing his welding certificate at a local junior college. He isn't going to a trade school. He goes to a JC and the costs at JCs have gone up along with the rise of tuition at 4 year institutions. So I don't quite see your point.

I too would like to see the

I too would like to see the role of federal loans or subsidies included in the analysis. We also need to concern ourselves with the fact that States compete with other States, not only for how much they spend on social services but on how much tax they collect. The Feds can issue bonds to make up the difference for what they collect and what they spend, but States do not (generally) have this ability to continue paying for a certain level of service without the income to support it.

Just look at the salaries of

Just look at the salaries of the administrators. The corporatization of higher ed. The race to the top for the highest salary. The Univ. of Calif claims it has to attract the top talent. B.S.

A college education isn't

A college education isn't requisit to acquire a good paying job. A friend of mine just became a certified wielder and started a job at $17/hour with benefits (at least, until Obamacare kills his health coverage) in a place where a living wage is close to $10/hour (not withstanding fuel/energy costs). This is his starting his first job without college as he went to a trades school.

No one said that college is a

No one said that college is a requisite for everyone; obviously it's not. But for a critically thinking populace that needs to compete in a world where many other countries have an increasingly better educated workforce, it's pretty much required. Obamacare is going to kill his coverage--how, exactly?

As for your friend, good luck to him; that's great. But people should have access to low-cost, high quality education, whether your friend wants it or not. It's a matter of priorities; and people on the right want to keep anyone who isn't already wealthy bereft of critical thinking skills. That way, we'll just sit and watch TV and accept whatever the prevailing bullet point narrative is, without actually questioning it...

I'd like to look at the

I'd like to look at the "Obamacare" jab. How does a bill that increases his ability to get health care coverage "kill his health coverage"?

Check out for more information. Unfortunately the Whitehouse has been having to counter a lot of the misinformation out there. I'm sure you can find a many balanced sources; there are many non-partisan sources on this.

In general, the Healthcare Bill, or Obamacare, it was very good. I think you might see some real benefits to it when you look into it.


The Moral Mission of Government is to Protect and Empower the People.

Excellent summary of the ACA

Excellent summary of the ACA by economist at SIT J. Gruber:

Nice argument but misses the

Nice argument but misses the point. How many folks can become welders or other trade practitioners? How many can our economy absorb and employ? Don't we need a mix of job skills in the next generation of workers and isn't that what happens when we support public higher education? I just met a young man who is pursuing his welding certificate at a local junior college. He isn't going to a trade school. He goes to a JC and the costs at JCs have gone up along with the rise of tuition at 4 year institutions. So I don't quite see your point.

Why is the cost of education

Why is the cost of education going up so radically and has for so long? I pay upwards of $200 for a textbook because there appears to be a monopoly in the market. I pay $300 per credit hour at a smaller non-grandiose institution which is still quite a bit for someone whom isn't born with a silver spoon in one's mouth, but it is manageable. Why do the public university need to pay so much for NEW buildings and for TENURED professors? Where is all of the money going? Let's have some transparency in where money garnered by the various institutions goes and maybe the costs wouldn't so radically rise out of proportion with inflation.
...and yes, I am paying my own way without help from family, friends or big brother (the government)!

This topic next discussed

This topic next discussed with juxtaposition to our incarceration expenses would really make the point, and make it better.

States are still spending a

States are still spending a greater percentage of their revenues on colleges than they did in the 60's when college was so much cheaper. Why are college costs so high? Where does the money come from? Isn't it an economic truth that the more money there is the higher the prices will go?

Public colleges aren't

Public colleges aren't suppose to, nor do they, work on the competitive economic structure of equilibrium--getting as much and charging as much as you can. They are suppose to be nonprofit, for the public, as in anyone can go to get an education, even if you are poor. Pricing lower class people out of education isn't why public universities were created. They were created to level the advantage given to those of privileged.

I agree fullheartedly. I

I agree fullheartedly. I would also like to see someone, anyone address the inherent classism within universities that find it completely acceptable to pay adjunct faculty and graduate student instructors, who teach over half of all university classes, approximately 30,000 a year without benefits or job security (or even gym access!). It is a national disgrace that adjunct faculty - many of whom work full time at 2 or more universities, are paid less than than not only secondary school teachers, but paraprofessionals as well. Some schools pay as little as 2,100 per class - if one teaches 8 classes per year, that is only 16,800 per year. Bear in mind that these faculty members must have at least a Master's degree; many have PhDs. Furthermore, many universities do not pay taxes or pay a nominal sum - you can include Harvard in that mix. So these schools pay people so little that they qualify for food stamps, (costing taxpayers more money) yet pay no taxes. If state legislatures only told these schools to either pay their faculty, or pay taxes, you would see a difference. In the meantime, who is raking in the big bucks? Tenure faculty, who do nothing for their colleagues, and administrators, who do not teach a single student. And then universities wonder why they have retention issues. Universities, no matter the budget cuts, should not break the backs of those doing the work--at one school where I taught, we adjuncts figured that if we had 20 students in a class, we only earned 1.25 students' tuition for the course - where is the rest of that money going? Universities should be bastions of equity, but in terms of class, they are as bad as feudal overlords.

Good going, Leigh. Please

Good going, Leigh. Please keep your good ire roused.

Also consider the slippery slope. "Higher" ed now treats teaching and teachers as the rest of Corporate America does workers. Just another expense to be minimized, off-shored, standardized-tested, roboticized as much as possible. But where did this dehumanized view of life originate? Please look into the most sacrosanct of habits in corporate academe itself -- the depersonalized specialization conceits across all "departments."

Clearly, lots of our most erstwhile sinecured have brought on what admin in extra-biz-schoool-force now dishes out.

This is an excellent

This is an excellent analysis. But I'd love to see you take on the "rightists" that insist the cost of higher education is due to unfair and imbalanced federal loan subsidies that somehow "enable" universities to charge more. Could you address this in the future? Thanks for all you do. You, Sanders, Krugman, folks at Democracy Now, and all the NoC folks are doing great work in support of just causes and decency (if that's progressive, fine, but to me, just seems to be *common* sense). Cheers. - G. Moreau

Oh that's easy to counter:

Oh that's easy to counter: Show us the evidence that the correlation between increasing prices are driven by student loans, and then get back with us. Then we can work on the problem.

I hear you. But playing

I hear you. But playing devil's advocate for a second, the right might counter that it's a market-driven scenario, where the government is intervening by simply providing endless sums of money to meet the arbitrarily rising costs of higher education. And is therefore skewing the marketplace. I don't believe this is the case, but I don't have enough data to prove it.

I think that the policy changes needed can be created if we were to, first, acknowledge that higher education is a basic right; and more, a basic need, for our society. I think that's the subtext for RR's analysis.

Comment with your Facebook account

Comment with your Disqus account

Top Stories

comments powered by Disqus

NationofChange works to educate, inform, and fight power with people, corruption with community.

If you would like to stay up to date with the best in independent, filter-free journalism, updates on upcoming events to attend, and more, enter your email below:

7 Compelling Reasons Why You Should Support NationofChange

Our readers often tell us why they’ve decided to step up and become supporters. Here are some of the top reasons people are giving.

1. You’re keeping independent journalism alive
The corporate owned media has proven that it can’t be trusted. In a media landscape wrought with spin and corruption, NationofChange stands in very scarce company.

2. You’re sticking it to the rich, powerful, and corrupt
When you have money in this country you can get away with damn near anything, and they do. NationofChange isn’t afraid to expose these criminals no matter how powerful they are.

3. Your donation is 100% tax-deductible
NationofChange is a 501(c)3 charity. People tend to assume that many other organizations are (most nonprofits are NOT) but it’s that 501(c)3 status is a bit more rare than you think.

Read the rest...