An illustrative story about public higher education funding

Bryan Alexander
Jun 26 · 5 min read

When people consider the decline of state support for public higher education, it’s commonplace to hear calls to reverse that trend. What’s rare is to hear people describing plans for how such a fine reversal could occur.

I suspect it’s because folks realize that the political situation in most American states is so difficult to overcome. I’m not referring to Trump, although he can make things worse on this score. Instead, it’s clear that state legislatures generally have priorities they find more influential than sufficiently funding state universities.

Perhaps an instructive story will make that political fact more evident.

I’m drawing the following tale from a fine, story-rich 2014 Chronicle of Higher Education article by Karin Fischer and Jack Stripling. The story I’d like you to listen to starts in the midwest:

More than a decade ago, the new governor of Michigan stood before a group of more than 1,000 business leaders and posed a simple question: Where would you make the first cut? The options were projected onto large screens in the Detroit convention hall: Health care. K-12. Prisons. Welfare. The arts. Higher education.

(The reason for this exercise was a bad economy, even for Michigan. To continue:)

As a list of programs and government services flashed on the screen, Ms. Granholm asked members of the audience to press a button: Cut or keep?

“Where would you spend your first dollar?” she prompted. “Where would you make the first cut?”

The vote wasn’t even close. At the top of the list of cuts: the state’s universities.

“The vote wasn’t even close.”

But that’s just one event, right? It’s solely the whims of one population, surely? No. That vote was just the first of a series:

Over the next year, the governor would conduct a dozen similar forums around the state. Sometimes she asked participants to rank their favored programs. Other times she presented specific trade-offs: Eliminate after-school programs or scholarships for students at private colleges? Cut money for cooperative extension or prescription-drug help for senior citizens? No matter the size of the group, no matter where in the state, the results were always the same: Higher education should go on the chopping block.

Listen to that last bit again: “No matter the size of the group, no matter where in the state, the results were always the same: Higher education should go on the chopping block.”

Keep in mind that Michigan is not a deep red state. It has a proud history of labor and civil rights activism. It narrowly voted for Bernie Sanders over Hillary Clinton in the 2016 Democratic primary. Yes, it went for Trump in 2016, but only by a hair, and not by a majority of votes cast. The governor in question? Was she an anti-tax, Tea Partier Republican? Nope. She’s a Democrat.

In fact, let’s hear more about her from Fischer and Stripling:

It wasn’t that Ms. Granholm was hostile to higher education. Far from it. The first in her family to go to college, at Berkeley and then Harvard Law, she knew the power of a degree. Indeed, she would make doubling the number of college graduates a priority and promote community colleges as a way to retrain the state’s blue-collar workers.

But when it came down to it, as much as she valued higher education, Ms. Granholm considered other programs more crucial.

This is a story about severe economic stress. While it’s the kind of stress most states felt in 2008 and some still experience now, not every legislature faces such economic urgency. Yet the priority rankings remain widespread, from what I’ve seen. Back to Granholm’s candidates: health care, K-12, prisons. She adds “Welfare”; I would interpret this to include the full range of transfer payments and services, including pensions. Higher education cannot outcompete these domains for budget priorities. Legislators will “consider other programs [to be] more crucial.”

There’s much more in that article, and I commend it to you. It has many impressive stories. I’m particularly struck by the resonance of this line from another story, concerning higher ed in Colorado:

The state is no longer — will not likely again be — a full partner with public colleges.

Yes, that’s the state not effectively partnering with the institutions it created and used to support well.

One more Michigan sample: the University of Michigan’s long-time president James Duderstadt once described his institution’s relation to the state government thusly:

As university president I used to explain that during this period we had evolved from a state-supported to a state-assisted to a state-related to a state-located university. In fact, with Michigan campuses now located in Europe and Asia, we remain only a state-molested institution.

Even if a campus isn’t expanding abroad, that’s a fine pair of sentences.

How will this story play out in the future? How much longer will state governments continue to be such non-partners for public colleges and universities?

My speculation is that these political forces are nearly intractable for the short and medium-term future. The political value of public higher ed’s competitors is just too high. Additionally, some are becoming more expensive, notably health care and pensions. If their value remains high, they’ll draw more from a state’s funding.

It’s possible that some of these competitors will decline in importance. K-12 costs might tick down as demographic forces produce ever-smaller class sizes. Schools and districts can respond to that by cutting the number of classes — i.e., reducing the number of teachers and associated staff, leading ultimately to less expensive primary and secondary school programs. (This will require educators to not succeed in arguing for the pedagogical benefits of smaller classes.) It’s also possible that a millennial change wave could persuade states to reduce mass incarceration and decriminalize some offenses, leading eventually to less expensive penal systems. Given American culture and politics, I think this might take some time to accomplish. Demographics could help here, too, as active criminals tend to be younger. Furthermore, we can imagine a Bernie Sanders-style health care financial reform that finally brings down the medical cost curve at the state level.

Alternatively, American culture could experience a sea change. We might return to a mid-20th-century attitude of valuing public education highly as a public good. This is Chris Newfield’s vision, which he articulated in a fine book and as a splendid Future Trends Forum guest:

Short of those developments, I fear state universities will continue to end up at the top of Granholm’s cutting ballot for years to come.

(thanks to Linda Burns, who pointed me to George Siemens’ tweet; Michigan capitol photo by David Marvin; cross-posted to my blog)

Bryan Alexander

Written by

Futurist, speaker, writer, consultant, educator. Author of The FTTE report, THE NEW DIGITAL STORYTELLING, and GEAR UP FOR LEARNING BEYOND K-12.

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