Our nation’s debate over who benefits from education – and thus who should pay for it – is nothing new. From a distant enough historical perspective, it might not seem terribly interesting. (If I wrote out my thoughts on the Morrill Act of 1862, you’d turn to the sports section.) Society benefits in some fairly obvious ways from an educated populace, and so we pay taxes for public schools. Individuals also stand to benefit from getting an education, and so we pay college tuition, even at public universities.

Angela Cesere

But for the last couple decades, the debate has favored the idea that individuals benefit more, so individuals should pay more. That’s ultimately why tuition goes up the way it does, why a friend of mine will finish his undergraduate degree here with more than $70,000 in debt and why public universities that aspire to academic greatness are becoming increasingly inaccessible to the public they’re supposed to serve.

The electoral success of politicians who rely on anti-tax, anti-government rhetoric; post-Cold War skepticism toward any and all public institutions; President Bush’s notion of an “ownership society” – it all adds up to an environment where paying for higher education is seen almost exclusively as the responsibility of students and their families. By and large, the generous state appropriations that once enabled public universities to offer residents relatively low tuition were pared down in the tax-cutting frenzy that’s dominated American political life ever since the actor from California unseated the peanut farmer from Georgia. The result, invariably, has been drastic tuition increases, year after year.

Sure, there’s federal financial aid. But it increasingly comes as loans that the college graduate, who after all should earn more thanks to his degree, will eventually have to pay back. The Democrats who are about to take control of Congress talk about their plan to make college more affordable – but all they want to do is cut the interest rate on student loans a bit. We’re far more likely to hear politicians promote various schemes to allow parents to save for their children’s college education than we are to hear anyone suggest a meaningful boost to the value of Pell grants, which once covered the majority of a low-income student’s costs at a four-year university.

Former University President James B. Angell famously said that the University should strive to provide “an uncommon education for the common man.” Other elite public universities – like the University of Wisconsin at Madison, the University of Virginia and the University of California at Berkeley – play similar roles in their states, ideally serving to offer a world-class education to a far broader swath of students than could afford a top-notch private school. But that mission is threatened by society’s increasing reluctance to help pay for the costs of a quality education.

Lower-tier schools can, to some extent, make do on a limited budget by further sacrificing their quality. The best public universities won’t do that. The components of a quality institution – enviable research facilities, say, or salaries adequate to attract and retain the best faculty – are expensive. If state support isn’t adequate, administrators at these schools will gladly raise tuition. The result, in the case of this institution, has been double-digit tuition hikes during my time here.

Even such drastic tuition increases aren’t enough. These schools are turning to private donations, becoming what former University President James Duderstadt has called “privately funded public universities.” The University of Virginia has embraced that phrase in describing its current $3-billion capital campaign. The Michigan Difference is near its goal of $2.5 billion. Eventually, one of these schools will give up on pretending to be a public university and turn private, thereby ridding itself of that pesky obligation to give in-state students a discount on tuition.

We keep hearing fearful statements about how American education isn’t up to the challenge of a global economy and how we need to prepare ourselves for the knowledge-based jobs of the 21st century. One might think we’d recognize that the pendulum has swung too far – that by acknowledging only the benefits individuals stand to gain from higher education, we’ve undervalued the broader good of a highly educated, competitive workforce. Worse, we’ve endorsed policies that keep middle- and low-income students from attending woefully unaffordable flagship state universities.

The University tries to offer what financial aid it can, at least to in-state students, but the overwhelming sticker shock at schools like this one deters many qualified students from even applying. I should know; I was one of them. My father strongly encouraged me to go to Wayne State University, where I was assured a scholarship. My luck on the ACT fooled the College of Literature, Science, and the Arts into providing me a substantial scholarship that let me attend, but I was the grateful and fortunate exception to the unfortunate rule.

Our public universities produce far more graduates than the private schools do, and any meaningful effort to ensure equitable access to higher education will necessarily focus on public institutions. But the debate over who stands to benefit from education, of course, doesn’t occur in a vacuum. The broader political forces of the times enforce the seemingly immutable political reality that taxes may only be cut, never raised. That will all but certainly keep us from increasing our public investment in higher education until the need to do so becomes too obvious to ignore.

Christopher Zbrozek is a Daily editorial page editor. He can be reached at zbro@umich.edu.

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