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Public education should be free. If it isn't free, it isn't public education.
This should not be a controversial assertion. This should be common sense. But Americans have forgotten what the "public" in "public education" actually means (or used to mean). The problem is that the word no longer has anything to refer to: This country's public universities have been radically transformed. The change has happened so slowly and so gradually — bit by bit, cut by cut over half a century — that it can be seen really only in retrospect. But with just a small amount of historical perspective, the change is dramatic: public universities that once charged themselves to open their doors to all who could benefit by attending — that were, by definition, the public property of the entire state — have become something entirely different.
What we still call public universities would be more accurately described as state-controlled private universities — corporate entities that think and behave like businesses. Whereas there once was a public mission to educate the republic's citizens, there is now the goal of satisfying the educational needs of the market, aided by PR departments that brand degrees as commodities and build consumer interest, always with an eye to the bottom line. And while public universities once sought to advance the industry of the state as a whole, with an eye to the common good, shortfalls in public funding have led to universities' treating their research capacity as a source of primary fundraising, developing new technologies and products for the private sector, explicitly to raise the money they need to operate. Conflicts of interest are now commonplace.
Should public universities be free? Only because our public universities have been so fundamentally privatized over the last 40 years does the sentence "Public universities should be free" even make sense. Of course they should be free! If an education is available only to those who can afford it — if an education is a commodity to be purchased in the marketplace — in what sense can it really be called public?
Let there be light
In the early 1960s, California formulated a master plan for higher education — a single name for a set of interlocking policies developed by University of California president Clark Kerr. The idea was that any Californian who wanted a postsecondary education would have a place to go in the state's three-tiered system. Students could go to a community college for free, and from there they could transfer to a California State University or a University of California — where no tuition was charged, only course fees that were intended to be nominal. New universities were swiftly planned and built to meet the dramatic increase in demand expected from baby boomers and the state's growing population; as more and more citizens aspired to higher education, California opened more and more classrooms and universities to give them that opportunity. The master plan was not a blank check, but it was a commitment: any Californian who wanted a postsecondary education could get one.
Today that is simply not true. For one thing, institutions like the University of California have not grown to meet the rising demand; year by year, bit by bit, as the state's population has continued to grow, a larger percentage of California students have been turned away or replaced by out-of-state students (who pay much higher tuition). In fact, university officials are quite explicit about the fact that they are admitting more out-of-state and international students (and fewer Californians) in order to raise money. Historically, about 10 percent of the U.C.'s student population was from out of state, but that number has more than doubled since the 2008 financial crisis. (In Michigan, which has been hit even harder than California, out-of-state enrollment in the University of Michigan system is closer to 40 percent.)
If this country can build the world's largest military and fight open-ended wars in multiple theaters across the globe, it can find a way to pay for public education.
Most important, as tuition steadily rises to the level of comparable private universities, the word "public" comes to mean less and less. Indeed, when Mark Yudof was appointed president of the University of California in 2008, he was known as an advocate of what he had called in 2002 the hybrid university: an institution that retained some of the characteristics of a public university but would draw the bulk of its revenue from student tuition.
Yudof's vision of the "public" university would have been unrecognizable to the architects of the master plan: instead of providing the tools for the state's citizens to better themselves, state universities are to survive by thinking like a business, selling their product for as much as the market will bear. From the point of view of higher-education consumers — which are what its students have effectively become — the claim that the U.C. system is public rings increasingly false with every passing year.
For my parents, by contrast, distinction between public and private was very clear. Both baby boomers and the first in their families to get college degrees, they went to public universities because they were affordable and private universities were not. By that definition, are there any public universities left? Schools that are at least partially funded and controlled by elected officials, usually at the state level, are nominally public, and the broad range of universities that are not owned by the government — from nonprofit corporations like Harvard to explicitly for-profit corporations like the University of Phoenix or Udacity — truly inhabit the private sector. But if the price tag is the same, if the product is the same and if the experience is the same, what difference does a university's tax status make? A university that thinks and behaves like a private-sector corporation — charging its consumers what the market will bear, cutting costs wherever it can and using competition with its peers as its measure of success — is a public university in name only.
Open roads and toll roads
A better way to compare public and private would be to consider the difference between public roads and toll roads. Some toll roads are owned and operated by state governments and some by the private sector. But does the driver care who ownsthe road? I doubt it; the important thing is whether the road is free and open to all or whether it can be used only by those who can afford to drive on it. The same is true of public and private universities: A university is public only if those who need to use it can do so.
In this sense, it seems to me that the malaise that afflicts our public universities is not really about about dollars and cents. If this country can build the world's largest military and fight open-ended wars in multiple theaters across the globe, it can find a way to pay for public education, as it once did in living memory. But doing so has ceased to be a real priority. Affordable public education is no longer something we expect, demand or take for granted; to argue that public education should be free makes you sound like an absurd and unrealistic utopian. Meanwhile, we take it for granted that roads should be free to drive on, a toll road here or there not withstanding. You provide the car and the gas; the state provides the road.
This used to be how we thought about our public universities, before they became exorbitant toll roads. If you had the grades and the ambition, there was a classroom open to you. But if every road were a toll road, no one would expect to drive for free. If every road were a toll road, the very idea that the government would build and maintain a massive system of roads and highways — and then let anyone use it (for free!) — would seem fantastical, ridiculous, even perverse. People expecting the right to drive anywhere they pleased, for free, would be branded utopian, socialist and deluded, soft-hearted liberals demanding a free lunch. That's the world we live in when it comes to highways. When the roads that drive our economy and make modern life possible get too crowded or too congested, we expect the state to build new roads. When the old roads wear out, they are repaved. When a tree or a landslide obstructs a thoroughfare, the state clears the way. When there are not enough classrooms, on the other hand, the state no longer builds new universities; it simply charges more.
For most of the 20th century, when the overwhelming majority of this country's public universities were built, it was simply common sense that a growing college-age population had to be matched by a growing system of accessible higher education, something that — as everyone agreed — only the government could provide and that only the government did provide. They were explicitly chartered to bring a college degree within the reach of as many citizens as possible and to advance the greater good by disseminating knowledge as widely as possible. Without that common sense, that bipartisan consensus, our public universities would never have been built in the first place. And judged by that original standard, there are few, if any, public universities left.
Aaron Bady is a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Texas and formerly a doctoral candidate at the University of California at Berkeley. He is an editor and blogger at The New Inquiry.
The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.