The Public University: Dying a Slow Death?

vinceheadshot by Vince Boudreau, Dean, Colin Powell School for Civic and Global Leadership, The City College of New York

Year after year, the defunding of public higher education has crept forward without sounding many alarms. It’s not clear that any policy maker or government unit made a specific decision to withdraw support for state universities. Yet, if the current trend continues, most states will have fully divested themselves from supporting public higher education by the 2050s. In New York State, the sunset year is projected to be 2038.

There was a time when New York State citizens covered more than 75 percent of The City College of New York’s budget. Today, that number stands at 36 percent, down a full 11 percentage points in the last four years alone.

How have we allowed this to happen? Through varying degrees of neglect—some more easily pinpointed than others.

On the one hand the erosion of financial support has taken place in a slow and insidious manner. What today appears as a fundamental sea change is better understood as a series of incremental reductions, often in the context of budget crisis and economic downturn: death by a thousand cuts, rather than by any one decisive blow. And the devil is, as always, in the details: In the context of rapidly escalating private tuition, public colleges have been able to shift the cost of college, at a still fairly competitive rate, onto the backs of students—and if academic programs have grown leaner, universities remain open and continue to produce graduates. So the immediate cost of these cuts can often be hidden from obvious view.

But there’s another sort of neglect, one that directly undermines our democratic ideals and threatens our national ability to tackle the challenges of a rapidly changing world. There is ample indication that we’ve lost touch with the reasons why our grandparents—and theirs—so passionately supported the public financing of higher education.

This historical public support for higher education reflected a belief in upward mobility as crucial to democracy and prosperity. No democratic government has long endured without a robust and publicly supported system to uplift and educate its society. Social peace, innovation, and the capacity of a people to thrive and prosper depended on providing opportunities to everyone with potential—not as a favor, or handout, but as a way of shepherding the resources embodied in that potential.

Ideas about access and diversity in American education were centered for a long time around racial and ethnic diversity. Our emphasis on rights has tilted the discussion in the direction of what individual members of society deserve—addressing the discrimination and hardship that hobbles individual prospects of success.

This is a necessary, but only partial component of the issue, however—and it stumbles on that same failure to move from a consideration of individual rights and opportunities to collective and democratic goals. As the world grows more global, our work will necessarily require that we increasingly incorporate the perspectives of a diverse population into our thinking and planning. As income distributions become less and less equitable, institutions designed to reverse that trend become more essential to social stability and justice. As scientific, entrepreneurial, and economic competition come more powerfully from every corner of the world, we need the insight and energy of people in every corner of society.

The City College of New York has long been a place where young men and women of promise can come for a first rate education, and the people who credit CCNY for changing their individual lives is immense. But that narrative line misses the more important, collective story: that City College has been the beating heart of upward mobility in a city that stakes its entire reputation on the ascending journey from the docks to the high life. It misses the essential role that education has played in the movement to build a stronger society by building a stronger and more enlightened citizenry. It is a collective, rather than individual, opportunity that we miss in turning away from public education, and the time has come to step back to see the bigger picture and reinvest in our future capacities to educate, as our founders declared, "the children of the whole people."