Funding for public higher education has been decreasing in recent decades and, as schools rely increasingly on tuition for revenue, student debt has been rising.
That much is pretty well known. What is less a matter of public knowledge and debate is the link between growing racial and ethnic diversity and the decline in funding. I, for one, hadn’t considered it before. I knew the cuts in higher education hurt working-class Americans but I hadn’t thought about those cuts in relation to the increase in minority populations.
Until I read the article by Scott Carlson [ht: mfa], in the Chronicle of Higher Education [ht: mfa], who explores the issue in some depth. Carlson looks back at the history of public higher education (including the GI bill and the Reagan-era cuts in Pell Grants), the dog-whistle politics that have limited access for minority- and first-generation students (beginning when Ronald Reagan was governor of California and continuing with William J. Bennett, President Reagan’s secretary of education), and the undermining of the idea of public colleges and universities as an affordable way for working-class youth—white, black, and brown—to obtain a high-quality postsecondary education.
Since Carlson’s article will soon be out of reach behind a paywall, I want to quote at length his discussion of what has been happening in Arizona:
If the federal government doesn’t expand access to education, more of that burden will fall on states. In many of them, individuals and families now pay for a greater share of college costs than taxpayers do. Some places, like Arizona, have been going the way of California years ago.
Arizona’s legislature is whiter, more male, and more Republican than its population. And lately, that state — which has a clause in its constitution proclaiming that higher education “shall be as nearly free as possible” — has passed deep cuts in funding and big increases in tuition.
One of the leaders of that drive is John Kavanagh, a Republican state representative and community-college professor who has made headlines for his anti-immigration stance and remarks about Hispanics and Muslims. In an interview with The Chronicle, he was more measured, saying that the state has had to raise tuition to close a budget gap.
In 2012, he sponsored a bill that would require all students, regardless of income, to pay at least $2,000 toward tuition, in part to ease the burden on middle- and upper-middle-income students. He believes students should have “some skin in the game,” and bristles at the notion of poor students’ paying less, thanks to tuition revenue that gets redistributed as aid.
“I don’t think it’s a good policy to take money from one student to pay for another student’s tuition,” he said. “There is no reason that even a poor student can’t pay a nominal tuition, given that they are going to earn a lot more money than people who don’t have college degrees.”
But Alfredo Gutierrez, president of Maricopa Community College’s governing board and a former Democratic state senator, doesn’t buy the straight argument against subsidies. The state has been extraordinarily hostile to education, he says, a pattern he believes is tied to race. State funding for the Maricopa system had been going down since 2009, he says, until it got none last year. Half of Maricopa’s students are nonwhite.
“The deterioration to the K-12 system, the community-college system, and the universities will ultimately have to be paid for,” Mr. Gutierrez says. “If this trajectory that we are on continues, this will be an extraordinarily ignorant, uneducated state — certainly not a place that can deal with the economy of the future. And it will create a permanent underclass. There will be little ability to escape poverty.”
But Arizona, he predicts, is on the cusp of change. The Latino population is growing so fast that in six to 10 years, Arizona could flip over politically, possibly taking the state in a different direction, one that is more willing to invest in the education of immigrants and minority groups.
“Perhaps we have lost a generation,” he says, “but there is still a real opportunity to make a change.”
But Arizona is not alone. The deterioration of public education at all levels has been occurring across the country and, like much that has been happening in the United States in recent decades, it represents an attack on those least able to shoulder its effects: the children of the working-class, in all their racial and ethnic diversity.