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Just as More Minorities Access Higher Education, Public Support Recedes

It’s an ugly pattern that America has seen before. Will we do better this time?

Education as a vehicle to middle-class success is baked into the American Dream, and since the postwar period, higher education has been the preferred on-ramp to a more secure life. Yet that ramp is breaking down even as universities and colleges embrace a new era of diversity. We are at a precipice.

A recent report (PDF) by the U.S. Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics found that by 2025, the majority of American high-school graduates will be students of color. By 2030, the majority of college students will be students of color.

Many of these students will be from families in economic need and will attend public colleges and universities in hopes of ascending a road to better-paying jobs. Yet they will enter a public higher educational system that has witnessed deep cuts in state after state.

A report (PDF) by The State Higher Education Officers Association details the damage. Since the Great Recession of 2008, state funding for higher education is down 11.6 percent, with those cuts coming on top of others a decade earlier. In some states, the damage is nearly catastrophic. Arizona and Illinois have seen public support for state higher education lopped by more than 40 percent in just a decade; Alabama and Pennsylvania have cut support by more than 35 percent.

And even those numbers only count some of the cuts. States, such as New York, have taken operating costs the state once directly covered (such as salary increases per union contracts and increases in energy) and shifted those costs onto their universities and colleges operating budget. So, while the funding might appear relatively stable, the share of costs colleges need to cover leads to a real cut. This leaves these colleges to do more and more with less and less as they aim to provide a quality education at a price that’s affordable for all students.

The result is that as students of color are going to colleges and universities in historic numbers, we are seeing larger and larger cuts to those institutions they are most likely to attend. It’s an ugly pattern that America has seen before. 

Historians Ruth Needleman and the late Judith Stein have both detailed how the steel industry collapsed in the 1970s just as African-American workers finally began finding well-paying jobs in it. They were the last hired, and the first fired, as production moved overseas—seeing their American Dreams slip away just after they’d finally laid hands on it.

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With education as with steel, policy is a choice. Declining investment in higher education isn’t a natural act but a concrete recognition of our collective priorities.

But education doesn’t have to follow steel. Investing in public colleges and universities is an investment in our collective future and that of the American Dream.

I understand that state funding is complicated and that there is a real distaste for taxes and other priorities vying for funding. But, declining public support for higher education (and K-12 education, too) means students at economic risk bear a greater share of the cost of college through tuition and fee increases. It also means those students are paying more to attend institutions that have at the same time cut back on faculty, classes, and facilities. In short, they are paying more for less.

Middle-class students might be able to shoulder those additional costs and still find a bargain attending flagship institutions that are often more protected. Poor and working-class students, however, quickly hit a point where they are either priced out, unable to make educational progress, or pushed into lower-rung schools with weaker track records of student success. As the door to the more established schools close on them, these students too often leave the public system altogether and turn to less reputable and riskier for-profit ones, as sociologist Tressie McMillan Cottom pointed out in her recent book Lower Ed: The Troubling Rise of For-Profit Colleges in the New Economy.

When we shift risk onto students’ shoulders, it is the more vulnerable students who struggle the most with that weight. Over time, we all feel it, as the spending decisions politicians make on our behalf now diminish our collective future and dim our American Dream.


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