What happened to public higher ed? Reading Chris Newfield's essential new book

The Great Mistake coverThe Great Mistake is one of the most important and useful books about higher education this decade.
(That’s one reason I was delighted to get the author onto our weekly videoconference discussion, the Future Trends Forum. Here’s the session.)

The Great Mistake offers a powerful and rich model for explaining why American states defunded public education (recall that the majority of students attend public campuses). Along the way Chris Newfield offers many provocative ideas about higher ed in general, backed up by meticulous research and very engaging prose.

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For years now, our public colleges have been cut, squeezed, trimmed, neglected, overstuffed, misdirected, kludged, and patched. (305)

The majority of the book is dedicated to exploring an eight-step “devolutionary cycle” (nice chart on 36) or “doom loop” (16), whereby public universities privatize. This includes:

  1. Universities retreat from thinking of post-secondary education as a public good
  2. They reach towards outside sponsors (companies, foundations, military, nonprofits) who apparently help out with state divestment’s budget problem, but in reality end up bringing in less money – indeed, sometimes function at a net loss for campuses
  3. Tuition increases become substantial and frequent
  4. States cut higher ed funding again
  5. Student debt rises
  6. Private entities take advantage of what public funds they can
  7. Education attainment starts dividing based on unequal funding
  8. The economy decouples productivity from labor compensation

and repeat. Newfield dives into each phase in detail, one per chapter.

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I’d like to draw out some themes that cut across those phases:

The devolutionary cycle isn’t partisan, but bipartisan. It occurs in red as well as blue states. Democrats ultimately embrace it in a way very close to Republicans (24), so much so that the author dubs their philosophy “liberal Reaganism” (144).

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One of the book’s embedded narratives follows the administrative career of one “progressive Democrat” as a law school dean, wherein he massively increases tuition (159ff). Democrat Jerry Brown “cut the colleges and universities as much in 2011 as Arnold Schwarzenegger had cut them a couple of years before” (167).

Newfield follows Tressie Cottom in seeing the rise of for-profit higher education as part of the privatization wave (59ff).

As with his previous book the author makes a data-rich and passionate case that STEM fields often lose money for their institutions, and are subsidized by the social sciences and humanities (cf the second chapter).

While states clearly play a major role in the negative transformation of public higher ed, Newfield takes care to lay blame as well at the university leadership’s feet. Our sector budgets opaquely, and has done a bad job of lobbying state governments effectively (137). Importantly, universities raise tuition even when states don’t cut support (138). This is not because campuses waste money, but because they are operating under an entrepreneurial and hypercompetitive mindset (145-151). In fact, campus willingness to increase tuition encourages states to cut support, rather than the other way around, a fairly counterintuitive but persuasive point (169).  This argument is vital, and rare.

One enormous challenge looming over the entire book is how to reverse this awful cycle. One powerful reason we haven’t done so is due to the sheer cost, although some think it wouldn’t be that onerous to taxpayers. Another and perhaps deeper challenge in Newfield’s telling is the necessity of changing a cultural mindset, back to the idea of public goods (129-30). The titular “great mistake is the private good framework” (308, emphases added). I am not so sanguine as the author in the likelihood of making such a transformation, at least not in the medium term. The politics are simply against it.

One reason the politics are still pro-devolutionary is the gigantic cost of health care, a point Chris made in our video discussion, but is too understated in the book. Private citizens, state governments, and the federal government all face mounting medical expenses, and despite the Affordable Care Act’s achievements, those expenses are still rising, thanks to our bizarre and costly funding system, and also to demographics – i.e., an aging populace which requires more health care.

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As the Republican Senate just found out, it’s politically self-destructive to cut health care; public universities have yet to make a convincing argument for getting some of those funds for themselves.

I also fear that, as Giovanni Arrighi argued in The Long Twentieth Century: Money, Power, and the Origins of Our Times (1994), financialization is just too hard to give up on. The giant machine of student debt is too politically powerful and economically rewarding. Personally, I’m still paying my student loans at age 50, and wonder if my death will discharge them, should I pass with a remaining balance. Wondering if my children will inherit my PhD debt is bizarre and depressing, yet hard to see a way around.  Note that for all of the good discourse about making public school tuition free, there isn’t a call for a student debt jubilee.

I otherwise admire The Great Mistake for its deep analytical powers, and strongly commend it to anyone working in or thinking about higher education.

(cross-published at Goodreads)

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4 Responses to What happened to public higher ed? Reading Chris Newfield's essential new book

  1. Phillip Long says:

    Just a touch of irony that the advt at the end of this post chosen by whatever algorithm governs these placements was for an online MBA program ftom Colorado State Univ…. Seems trenchent & ironic.

  2. VanessaVaile says:

    I added this to the collection I’m building around Newfield’s Forum session — will send over to Facebook page soon (have your previous post pinned there now).

    Past sessions with Jonathan Rees, Sara Goldrick-Rab, Tressie McCottom, maybe Adam Braun and this one with Chris Newfield have the feel of hanging together like a structural (as opposed to tech) “whither higher ed?” series. Now for community colleges. Do you have anyone in mind? Matt Reed seems like a good choice to to start with.

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