The relation between high college tuition and low state funding of higher ed: the right’s austerity agenda

by Linda Beale

The relation between high college tuition and low state funding of higher ed: the right’s austerity agenda
As certainly everyone should be aware by now (after almost 20 Republican candidate debates and months of negative campaign ads), the GOP candidates all think that we need to prescribe an austerity budget for state and federal governments. “Too much spending” they yell. “Too high taxes”, they scream. “It makes our big corporations uncompetitive”, they whine. “We need to break the backs of unions so public workers are as poor as workers in private industry, but still give tax cuts to the wealthy”, they assert, “so jobs can trickle down to the poor”. See, e.g., Arthur B. Laffer (yes, he of the laughingstock napkin-drawn Laffer “curve” projecting his view that cutting revenues from taxes increases revenues), “The States are leading a pro-growth rebellion,” Wall St. Journal, Feb. 11-12, 2012, at A11 (lauding the move to free-rider states, where stingy workers can get the benefits from the results of collective bargaining agreements without paying for the costs of supporting the union that got those benefits from them, thus starving and “busting” the union; gloating over the fact that California didn’t adequately fund its state workers’ retirement plans and that the anti-tax movement will keep it from doing so now).
That’s a prescription for disaster.

What our representatives in Congress need to do is look around them–preferably after driving at least 100 miles outside of the insulated Beltway and seeing some of the real country and its people.

We need federal programs that ensure a minimum standard of living for our people. We need a universal, “single payer” system of health care that kicks the insurers out of the profit-from-my-life-threatening-condition rentier existence and resigns them to offering supplemental insurance for those that want cushier than the universal coverage. We need federal enforcement of anti-trust, so that multinationals lose their aura of quasi sovereign status and can’t get “too big to fail”. (if anything is a short catchy phrase for what anti-trust should aid at, too big to fail seems to capture it.) We need to reinvigorate unions, so that ordinary Americans have a chance to grab a slice of the American pie.
Instead, states are putting on the austerity brakes. By keeping state taxes too low–cutting business taxes, cutting taxes on investment income and otherwise generally failing to adopt a steeply progressive tax system that could ensure they have adequate funding for important programs, states are sacrificing their futures. For example, states are forcing students to pay way too much for state universities (while they coddle private universities that should be making it on their own). Tuition has gone up by about the same amount that state support has gone down. States are firing state workers, or making them absorb a pay cut of 10-20% (in the name of making them pay more into their retirement plans while the states pay less, or making them pick up all of the incremental costs of health care coverage). The trickle down effect of those cuts is a slashing of small business in localities throughout the states. States are taking away public bargaining rights–moving us back to a neofeudalism where workers like peasants have to take whatever scraps the big boss throws their way, from cutting wages in half to tossing out the pension plan that the boss never fulfilled his promises towards. They are using a divide and conquer strategy–tell private workers [whose unions were long ago weakened by Taft-Hartley’s provisions and by concerted employer action to impede union formation and lobby for provisions that make it harder to unionize (such as the fight against the ‘card check’ rule)] that it isn’t fair for public workers to still be able to have unions and have good wages and benefits. Bring ’em all down to the dog eat dog world where the 1% will lord it over and the 99% can grovel.
There’s a good letter to the editor in the New York Times Friday 2/10/12, at A22, on the Cost of Public Colleges: easing the burden, by Mark Steinberg, history professor at the University of ILlinois in Champaign-Urbana (my stomping ground before my move to Detroit). He hits it right on.

“Punishing” schools that have partly filled the gap [left by the erosion of state support] with higher tuition may make education cheaper but will surely damage that education. College teachers across the country have seen many of these ‘more cost-effective ways to deliver education’: bigger classes taught by overworked and lower-paid adjuncts, more online courses, freezing the pay of faculty and staff, and other measures that control costs at the expense of quality and access.

Steinberg proposes two solutions to ensure that more money is spend on the “primary mission–serving the public good with new knowledge and educating citizens regardless of income”. The solution is to help states restore higher education funding, and to end the “jack and the beanstalk” growth of administrative positions.
Hear, Hear. Michigan, for one, needs to move to a progressive income tax and use the increased revenues to re-fund its state universities, which have moved from about 60% state funding to about 30% state funding in the last few decades.
If we don’t, we will see the proliferation of preferential treatment of the elite 1%, and the mashing down of most of the ordinary folk to low services. See Peter Funt, How Government Coddles the 1%, Wall St. Journal, Feb. 11-12, 2012, at A22 (noting that purchased privileges like California’s creation of “high roller lanes” for the wealthy who pay a fee and speedy airport screening for the rich are “dangerous precedents” for a country that has long considered the community of sharers of the public good to be undifferentiated by class. What’s next, he asks–public libraries where goold card holders get first crack at new titles; public parks, where the elite get the cleanest, greenest spaces; public beaches, where premium members get the best spots; public memorials, where the elite get the red carpet? As we move in that direction, we not only define an upper class but we place everyone else in a lower caste.