By 2011, the higher ed community knew some things that it hadn’t known in the year 2000. A summary of the decade’s findings, some well known, some not, read as follows.
1. State funding for public universities – serving 80% of the country’s college students – didn’t go up and down with the business cycle but (corrected for inflation and enrollment growth) went down, in a long decline over 30 years. SLIDE 2, SLIDE 3
2. Thirty years of growth in private funds helped speical projects but not general educational operations. In most humanities fields, fundraising didn’t net enough money to cover expenses. After 2011, in any case, endowment growth beat inflation, but not by much.
3. A larger number of independent analysts began to do the math on sponsored research projects. They found that this research produced large gross income and, at the same time, net losses, once overall expenses were calculated. Research, though intrinsically valuable, lost money, and was not an asset but a cost. SLIDE 4
4. After the crisis became acute in 2008, most higher education officials reacted as follows: they displayed resignation towards the steady fall in public funding (1), continued to invest academic resources in fundraising (2), staked their reputations on growth in sponsored projects (3), thus continuing to dig budgetary holes that could be filled from only one source, massive tuition increases. SLIDE 5. Right through the Great Recession they continued annual tuition hikes at 2-4x inflation. These increases led to deep tuition discounting to maintain enrollments, or to growing student debt, or to widespread public backlash, and most often to all three. SLIDE 6. The one thing tuition increases did not do was fix the budgetary problem. (For example, faculty reports coming out of the University of California calculated that to return UC to its 2001 level of resources in 2010-11, tuition would have needed to be nearly $25,000 per year, or double what it actually was.) Tuition more than doubled during the decade. By 2009, bloggers and protestors popularized the phrase “paying more to get less.” Taxpayer willingness to contribute more to public universities was further suppressed.
5. The US had had an educational advantage over every other country in the world from about 1840 on – first in high school graduation rates, then in college graduation. This was an edge in the attainment of the whole population, not just for the top 1% that went to Ivy League Plus. Between 1980 and 2010, the US completely squandered this historic advantage. It fell behind many high-income countries, and behind some medium-income countries as well. SLIDE 7
6. While playing catch-up, the U.S. had to advance the most “non-traditional” student population in its history. This population and its children were especially vulnerable to the renewed wave of offshoring that started in 2009, and to declines in manufacturing and construction, and to attacks on public sector and unionized employment. It had high proportions of first-generation students, returning students, students working full-time or unemployed, poor students, and students of color whose K-12 schools had received declining investment for 30 years. By 2010, in California, a 70% white voting public coexisted with a K-12 population that was 70% students of color. 50% of California’s K-12 students were eligible for the free lunch program. Private family resources for higher ed were overall lower than at any time since the 1970s.
7. The decade of the 2000s confirmed what the Financial Times columnist Martin Wolf called in 2011 the Great Convergence of income between the high and middle-income countries. China was slated to have 70% of the US level of output by 2030, but it hit that level this year, in 2020, 10 years ahead of schedule. This meant that standards of living in the US and Europe could not be maintained through vastly higher levels of consumption of resources. The same was true for worthy social goals like restored educational attainment: economic superiority was no longer the answer.
8. In 2010, Western governments, in harmony with the financial sector, imposed fiscal austerity from one side of Europe and North America to the other. One obvious effect was the reduction of resources for K-12 education, and for public colleges and universities. Financial cuts took precedence over investment in new forms of creativity, of social development, of ways of sustainably and equitably sharing scarce resources. These cuts, it can now be clearly seen in 2020, had a devolutionary impact on high-income countries.
9. In colleges and universities, austerity disproportionately focused on the arts and humanities – on the human sciences that were not thought to grow the economy. Fields like classics, linguistics, and literature in foreign languages, were the most likely to be proposed for closure, particularly on campuses where smaller enrollments meant those departments could not be raided for funds to subsidize expensive science and engineering research. These attacks destabilized the profession as a whole. SLIDE 8
In short, Devolutionary Spiral was in full force by the end of 2010. SLIDE 9. Older harmonies in the higher ed funding model had been destroyed. For example, public funding (1) had filled in the hidden shortfalls caused by extramural research (3), but cuts prevented this from continuting. Similarly, high income growth (7) had supported the world’s highest tuition levels (4), which for a time were used to replace drops in public funding (1), but wage stagnation and higher rates of poverty (7) deepened by austerity (8) popped the tuition bubble. Each step in the negative cycle strengthened several others.
In 2011, the US faced a systemic failure of its higher education funding model. But in that year, a surprising change began to be felt, and in parat from an unexpected place, the humanities.
FUTURE 2011-2020. Just three samples. SLIDE 10 START
2011: After a series of Freedom of Information Act requests, a major state university system revealed that savings of about a million dollars from closing humanities departments overshadowed by losses of nearly $50,000,000 annually in its sponsored research programs (Exhibit F). The website Propublica decided to investigate apparent public subsidies of private business interests in university-sponsored research centers more generally, particularly those designed to serve as incubators for local industry. The results of this work came to the attention of Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa), still smarting from his battle for higher university endowment payouts. He started a new round of Senate hearings about the possible misuse of public money. In addition, faculty, staff, students, and parents, distraught by ever-rising tuition and stagnant wages, began to demand more transparency about the extent to which student tuition was subsidizing not only scientific research, which was held to be justified to a limited (and openly negotiated) extent, but commercial research that should be conducted in industrial laboratories at company expense. Although most industry sponsors successfully documented their support of basic research without exclusive intellectual property agreements, attention was directed towards the high cost of research in the increasingly unpopular health sciences arena. Students at one medical campus obtained documents showing that the medical school had received a loan from its campus equal to nearly 10% of the campus’s total revenues, and that annual cash flows went from the campus to the med school in untraceable amounts. The faculty Senate passed a resolution calling on the university to spin off the medical school as a self-supporting enterprise, charging $1 a year for using the university’s name. The move prompted wider investigation of the medical enterprises at public universities in various states across the country. Parents formed a group called Families of Future Leaders (FFL), which began to pressure state legislatures to account correctly and openly for the use of student tuition. In 2015, Sen. Grassley celebrated his 35th year in the U.S. Senate with the Federal Fair Funding Act, which required federal research agencies for the first time to pay the full cost of sponsored research at state-funded universities, as they had always done for private industry.
2014: Two simultaneous events produced an unexpected result. First, the heads of the handful of major humanities granting agencies cosponsored a report with the Department of Education, called “The University for a Sustainable Society.” The report took direct aim at the massification of higher education, at passive learning in both large lectures and low-cost on-line arrangements, and defined the purpose of higher education as the development of human capability for the sake of social development. Endorsed and then promoted by a galaxy of higher education analysts, including former conservatives like Diane Ravitch, the report detailed learning practices essential to the reconstitution of a democratic and economically dynamic society. These required the replacement of an overemphasis on fiscal, legal, bureaucratic, and communicative control, which the report noted had infected educational practices, with the development of capacities for the transmission of informal know-how through group-based active learning, project-centered coursework, and a renewed focus on the strong individual agency and craft-skills that innovation required. CNN-NBC News ran a series called “Is Humane the New Smart,” and, for the first time since Brown v. Board of Education the tide began to turn against measurement and control as dominant educational strategies, and towards craft mastery and intellectual independence.
Also in 2014, continuing closures of humanities departments, coupled with spreading awareness of the role of large-enrollment humanities departments in subsidizing other disciplines, provoked stronger measures. Literature professors at major public research universities – UC San Diego, Wisconsin-Madison, Minnesota-Twin Cities, and North Carolina-Chapel Hill, wrote a manifesto called “The Case for Succession.” The thirty cosigners each pledged to offer one course per year off campus in their area of literary, cultural, or theoretical expertise. In other cases, they did this as an overload, nothing that most humanities doctoral advising was already done as an overload. In others, sympathetic administrators offered to house the off campus courses in the electronic university whose infrastructure was already in place. Since the 30 signers among them taught more than 10,000 students per year, the experiment attracted the interest of for-profit universities with experience in nontraditional education environments. Needing to improve its public image, Kaplan University funded two years of these experimental universities, and offered complete academic freedom and hosting services in exchange for observation rights. Student enrollments were strong, since student experience on public university campuses has been degraded through years of growing class size and reduced access to professors, graders, advisors, and basic classroom space. Under the rubric of Bootleg universities, television gives the experiments publicity. Speaking on an episode of Charlie Rose, one of the movement leaders said, “we realized our disciplines weren’t getting much of the infrastructure our students and citizens were paying for, and the administrative workload was killing us. By cutting out the university intermediary, we charge students half the price for twice the educational service.” Because of strong student support, the bootleg universities are able to stay independent. As it turned out, the “unbundling” of university activities predicted by Anya Kamerentz and others allowed the humanities to return to its roots as an immersive educational experiences at the intersection of personal and social development. Propelled by popular demand for textual and cultural skills, bootleg universities grew for the rest of the decade.
2016: Bloomberg-ABC-CBS News reported that for-profit colleges, which tripled their enrollments from 1998-2008, and whose students received 25% of all Pell Grant federal funding in 2008-09, received 50% of Pell Grant funding in 2014-15. Meanwhile, as a result of steadily rising tuition, and the closure of many low-cost community college campuses, average student debt burdens doubled between 2005 and 2015. Similar growth occurred in private-sector PLUS loans to parents for their children’s education. In Washington state, some baby-boomer senior citizens started a group called Grandparents Against Debt (GAD), and told graphic tales of the destruction of the economic security of their grandchildren, for whom affordable higher education had all but disappeared. Cross-generational discussions of family finances became public, and polls showed that support for restored public funding of education for the sake of debt reduction had gone from a solid majority position in 2010 to an 80% approval rating in 2016. Nothing much happened until the fall of that year, when several hundred college students at the Seattle campus of the University of Washington, which was charging in-state students $21,500, gathered to “burn their debt cards” in front of the campus’s financial aid office. The debt card burners promise to default on their student debt. Campus administrators, who had generally supported the expansion of loan programs, realized that the debt situation was no longer manageable. They switched sides, and the American Association of Universities along with other groups issued pledges to work for the elimination of private intermediaries in student loan programs and for strict caps on allowable student debt. Higher education began to be articulated as a public good that benefits the entire society – propelled by what in 2020 we have come to call the Great Student Debt Default that began that year.
SLIDE 11. In 2011, the wheel of misfortune began to turn in the other direction. And it would come to be known that the people who reversed the spinning wheel were among others the humanities students and teachers sitting right here in this room.