One explored the dramatic state disinvestment in higher education that accompanied the Great Recession. The other demonstrated the particularly intense effects of this disinvestment on community colleges. You can see the numbers for your state in this interactive display.
In most ways, these reports will not surprise anyone who has been following higher education news. As they make clear, the long term reduction in state funding to public higher education institutions has intensified since 2008. Tuition has gone up, the percentage of students taking on debt has increased, and between 2008-2012 the size of the annual individual debt grew about 25%. (1) In the aggregate none of this will strike anyone as new.
But what is crucial in these reports is the focus on the impact of these changes on lower-income students. And here the reports are telling. For one thing, for decades the rate of lower-income college attendance grew, but that has now been reversed and in the last several years the rate has dropped nearly 10% (Note that Figure 1 below describes attendance rather than completion rates, which are far lower--compare Tom Mortenson's graphic in Chris's post on Free UC as a cure for low-income student debt.)
If we note that the community colleges have borne the greatest brunt of the cuts, we can give the lie to those arguments that claim that high tuition/high financial aid systems are enough to ensure that higher education is open to all and that it retains its role as a crucial site for delivering mass capability, social and intellectual mobility, and the democratization of knowledge.
That these reports came out during election season is not surprising, but that they came out during this election season is notable. After all, this is an election year in which GOP controlled legislatures have taken repeated steps to suppress the voting rates of people of color, the poor, the elderly, and students, not primarily through outright repression (although sometimes that does occur) but through raising the costs of voting. Indeed one recent study has argued that the costs imposed by the new voter identification rules are actually greater than the poll taxes struck down in the 1960s. If we add that to the efforts to shorten or eliminate early voting, the reduction in the numbers of voting places, the threatening mailers, etc. we can see a concerted effort to raise the costs--economic and social--of voting to the end of discouraging participation.
Now, while the efforts to suppress voting is being done overwhelmingly in Republican controlled states, the process of higher education disinvestment is a bi-partisan endeavor (as shown over and over and over and over again by Governor Brown). I don't think that the effort to shift costs onto students and discourage poor students from attending 2 and 4 year institutions is a conscious effort to decrease their education. At least I don't think that yet.
But unpleasant parallels are there. They point to a political and economic elite that is willing to use market or market-like mechanisms not to increase "choice" as they often claim but to increase burdens. The results overlap: we have been seeing higher costs for accessing both the political and the educational systems. We have also been seeing a relentless growth of economic inequality, which is in effect a way of pushing more of the burden of a declining economy onto a larger and larger portion of our society. From this perspective, the entrenched sclerosis of our political institutions ushers higher education towards its new role of lesser mobility for the overcharged majority.
High tuition, state disinvestment, voter ID laws, reduced voting times--these are linked. They are the common currency of politics and higher education policy from Sacramento through Oakland onto Tallahassee. It is a linkage that must be broken.
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