Tuesday, December 27, 2011

The death of public universities

At the University of Virginia, state support has dwindled in two decades from 26 percent of the operating budget to 7 percent. At the University of Michigan, it has declined from 48 percent to 17 percent.

Not even the nation’s finest public university is immune. The University of California at Berkeley — birthplace of the free-speech movement, home to nine living Nobel laureates — subsists now in perpetual austerity. Star faculty take mandatory furloughs. Classes grow perceptibly larger each year. Roofs leak; e-mail crashes. One employee mows the entire campus. Wastebaskets are emptied once a week. Some professors lack telephones.

Behind these indignities lie deeper problems. The state share of Berkeley’s operating budget has slipped since 1991 from 47 percent to 11 percent. Tuition has doubled in six years, and the university is admitting more students from out of state willing to pay a premium for a Berkeley degree. This year, for the first time, the university collected more money from students than from California.

As an individual matter, I despair of getting my son a top-flight college education some 15 or so years from now.

As a societal matter, two points:

First, a lot of parents are going to despair of getting top-flight educations for their children. The death of public universities is going to mean the death of opportunity for a lot of smart kids—and, to some extent, the death of merit in this country. Talent will still out, on occasion, but this exacerbates income inequality by robbing young people of proving grounds where they could demonstrate their ability to climb the social ladder. If you can afford a great public university, good for you. And if not, too bad.

Second: The research done at those public universities has helped spur innovation that, in turn, has helped drive the American economy. We're robbing ourselves of our future.

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