Letters: Why Is State Funding for Public Universities Declining?

Readers debate questions of cause and effect when it comes to government spending on public higher education and student diversity.

Graduation at Rutgers University (Jemal Countess / Getty)

American Higher Education Hits a Dangerous Milestone

Ronald Brownstein reported recently that state funding for public colleges and universities has declined as student populations have become more racially diverse.

Ronald Brownstein accurately documents the catastrophic loss of public confidence in American higher education, but the causes may be more wide-ranging than he suggests.

The past several decades have seen a marked deterioration in academic quality due to overspecialization and the unravelling of core curricula. Over the last few years, we’ve witnessed a crisis of free speech and academic freedom on college campuses that has occasionally spilled over into outright violence at places like Middlebury and Berkeley. Against this backdrop, tuition has steadily increased—in large measure to fund expansive university bureaucracies—which has contributed to a staggering $1.5 trillion in student debt.

It’s no wonder that states are questioning whether tax dollars are being effectively spent. For public higher education to flourish, universities will need to regain the trust of the communities they serve through a renewed focus on academic quality, viewpoint diversity, and reigning in spiraling costs.

Nicholas Barden
Administrative Director
The American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA)

Washington, D.C.

Several readers responded on Twitter:

Ronald Brownstein replies:

Nicholas Barden’s letter advances arguments against higher education that have grown common among conservatives. Undoubtedly some legislators’ distaste for the academic policies public higher education institutions pursue explains part of their resistance to funding them at levels comparable to earlier generations. But history suggests that states are still pursuing a very different approach to public higher education today—when the student body is increasingly diverse—than it did during the 1960s and early 1970s—when the level of campus unrest was far greater, but the student body remained much more preponderantly white.

As I calculated in a column a few years back: “The contrast with the baby boomers is revealing: Measured in inflation-adjusted dollars, tuition for public universities increased by about $450 from 1964 to 1976, while waves of boomers attended. By contrast, public-university tuition soared by more than $3,200 from 2001 to 2012 as the millennials poured onto campuses.” Tuition has increased at public colleges and universities another 15 percent since then. In public policy, as in political scandals, the best advice remains: Follow the money. It speaks loudly about priorities. And the money trail in the funding for public higher education shows a clear determination, unfolding everywhere but often most rapidly in red states, to shift the burden from the community collectively to families individually precisely as the student body is reaching historic levels of diversity.