The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

There are no quick fixes for the failing American university

Support from the federal government has covered up the long-term trend. Until now.

Attacks on higher ed are affecting public and private universities, including Harvard. (AP Photo/Lisa Poole, File)
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CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that Americans had $1.4 billion in student loan debt. The correct number is $1.4 trillion. 

A few days ago I woke up late for an early morning doctor’s appointment — which left no time for coffee. I grabbed what was in the pot, microwaved it, then hobbled out to my car. I didn’t know where I was going. A few clicks on my smartphone fixed that. I arrived just in time. My scheduled MRI went off without a hitch, and within an hour, I learned I had a torn ACL.

Microwave. Smartphone. MRI. That’s quite a combination — and all before lunch! These time- and lifesaving devices — to say nothing of the experts who created them — have changed the lives of hundreds of millions of people the world over.

But that’s not all these technological marvels have in common. Each was created with the help of U.S. research universities and with funding from the federal government.

With the GOP’s $1.5 trillion tax cut in the offing — and a rewrite of the Higher Education Act not far behind — the future of the federal-academic partnership that produced these incredible technologies is more uncertain than ever.

Here’s where things stand as a conference committee works to reconcile the House and Senate tax bills. The conference report will hew closer to the less draconian Senate bill, with reports indicating that the student-loan interest deduction, key education tax credits and the tax-exempt status of graduate-student tuition waivers are safe. Other higher-education cuts, however, remain on the table that will likely reduce charitable giving and increase taxes on business income and on endowment earnings at the nation’s leading research universities.

And since federal tax cuts historically lead to greater burdens at the state and local level, the worst may be yet to come, especially for public colleges and universities where the vast majority of the nation’s 20 million students are enrolled, and where state-level budget support hovers around 10 percent.

How did this happen? Most commentators have focused on the recent neo-populist revolt to explain the predicament of the nation’s 4,400 public, private, two- and four-year colleges and universities. They point to the Trump administration’s overt hostility to higher learning and to free speech. They point to President Trump’s “poorly educated” base. And they point to polls that indicate a growing partisan divide around higher education. Democrats support it; Republicans don’t.

The underlying assumption is that this is a fleeting problem that the next election cycle will fix. New president, new Congress, new possibilities. Right?

But that outlook belies the long-term political trends, which lead to a different, more ominous conclusion. Higher education has been buffeted by increasingly fierce winds thanks to stretched budgets and shrinking funding that have driven tuition sky-high and soured many on universities. Higher education has survived, thanks to pivotal support from the federal government. But if the GOP has its way, that funding will soon drop off, exposing our colleges and universities to catastrophic consequences with serious broader implications for society.

State-level higher education fiscal retrenchment over the past four decades has been a major contributor to the problems facing universities and colleges. Since the Great Recession of the 1970s, state funding for higher education has slowly but steadily receded in the face of endemic “grassroots tax rebellions” and concurrent demands for pensions, prisons and healthcare that have swallowed an increasingly large amount of state budgets. Add in decades of stagnant wages and tuition that has grown nearly 1200 percent since 1978, and the structural sources of higher education’s ongoing fiscal struggles and spotty public opinion becomes clear.

The major reason the current higher-education crisis did not manifest sooner — and isn’t worse — was because the federal government stepped in to pick up the slack as it has previously during economic downturns and in times of war.

Whether to fund research or to provide student aid, the federal government has been there to help keep students enrolled and to help keep the nation’s research economy chugging away. Even during the harshest years of the Great Recession of 2008, research funding held steady and student aid even increased, thanks to timely federal action. Subsequent regulations curtailed unscrupulous lenders, held for-profit outfits accountable, and offered students flexible loan-repayment options.

For their part, the GOP and Trump decry these policies as evidence of “big government” run amuck.

There can be no doubt that the nation’s higher-education system, like its health-care and financial systems, is a creature of government. Few if any colleges or universities could operate without federal support, as the tax-bill debate has revealed. Far from being a bad thing, however, until recently, Washington’s support for the higher-education system was considered essential for the country’s economic, social and political health, regardless of region or party identification.

Indeed, the Obama administration’s support for students and research production was part of a long bipartisan history that stretches all the way back to the nation’s founding. The idea for a “federal university” was debated during the Constitutional Convention. And our first four presidents — Washington, Adams, Jefferson and Madison — supported such a plan, believing as Washington put it, that a federal university would foster patriotism and “permanent Union.”

More pressing state-building concerns, like forging the political economy and financing internal improvements, and growing fears of a powerful centralized government, derailed Washington’s educational vision. Not until after the Civil War shattered the union did the federal government finally act. In 1862, President Abraham Lincoln signed the Morrill Land-Grant Colleges Act, endowing at least one public college in every state, laying the groundwork for the vast expansion in college attendance later on.

The federal government hasn’t looked back. By the 20th century, Washington moved from coordinating the land grants to funding the entire sector, public and private alike. From the Great Depression to World War II, the Cold War and the War on Poverty, from Franklin D. Roosevelt to Barack Obama, the federal government turned to higher education for defense and medical research and development, economic development and the production of democratic citizens.

Not even Presidents Richard M. Nixon and Ronald Reagan, both of whom harbored deep political animosities toward the sector, felt that motivated to stand between an aspiring student and her degree, or between a scientist and a new discovery (though Nixon did fire his science adviser). By the 1980s, the U.S. system was by most measures “the world’s best.”

It still is, but won’t be for much longer if the Trump administration and the GOP have their way. In their minds, the sprawling and costly U.S. higher-education system is just another big-ticket government giveaway — one that aims to force liberal values down the throats of America’s youth. Never mind that the system enrolls and graduates millions of students every year, the majority of whom identify as politically middle-of-the road. Or that it employs millions of workers. Or that it drives innovations that change the world. Or that a college degree is more important now than ever.

The GOP is correct that higher education has problems — rising costs, inequitable access, uneven quality and $1.4 trillion in student-loan debt are not “fake news.” But they are dead wrong to believe that these problems can be solved by abandoning the federal-academic partnership that is nearly as old as the nation itself. Instead, such a solution threatens to cripple higher education, with dire consequences for the nation’s future.