Home > Uncategorized > Fund Public Universities or Prisons? We’ve Made A Bad Choice since 2008. Can We Change Course Now?

Fund Public Universities or Prisons? We’ve Made A Bad Choice since 2008. Can We Change Course Now?

April 14, 2016

Yesterday I wrote a post praising the KY AG for suing the Governor of that state for his decision to override the will of the legislature and slash spending for public post-secondary education by 4.5% and praising the grassroots organizations for their willingness to take on funding levels that were unconstitutional. An article I read in the April 10 Atlantic On-Line underscores the fact that the decisions to underfund colleges is one made by democratically elected officials and adds insult to injury by noting that those same officials added to State prison budgets at the same time as they slashed spending for public colleges and universities. As Jonathan Cole reports:

According to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences’ recently completedLincoln Project report, between 2008 and 2013 states reduced financial support to top public research universities by close to 30 percent. At the same time, these states increased support of prisons by more than 130 percent.

Cole doesn’t say so explicitly, but— as in KY— it is probable that these decisions were rendered by down-ballot officials many of whom were voted into office in off-year elections. This means that those of us who see this as a problem and want to offer a remedy should play close attention to State elections and budgets. And Cole does explicitly offer a solution along these lines:

But such outcomes can be prevented. Those in the voting public who believe that they can get something for nothing or that quality will simply materialize out of the ether can revisit their assumptions. Governments can increase the marginal tax rates on substantial incomes so that those who have benefitted most from the nation’s prosperity pay a fair share of taxes that enables both access and educational opportunity for talented young people. The United States currently has one of the lowest marginal tax rates in the industrial world. Transferred resources from the very rich (less than 1 percent of nation’s population controls more than 25 percent of its wealth), corporations, and from lower-priority institutions could build a more robust educational system in our country. There are important positive consequences in economic growth from such investments at the state and local level, as has been demonstrated in studies of Silicon Valleyand in the area surrounding Boston.

Easy for Mr. Cole to suggest that those who believe they can “…get something for nothing or that quality will simply materialize out of the ether can revisit their assumptions”… but it is hard to convince the voting public to abandon their current mental formations when politicians who want to keep taxes low assert that higher post-secondary costs are the result of “…wasteful spending by the universities” and can offer one or two glaring examples of inflated administrative salaries, overspending on athletic facilities, recreational facilities, or “fancy dormitories”. The paradigmatic Trump supporter who never went to college and figures his children will never be able to afford college can be easily persuaded that the profligacy and mismanagement of colleges by overpaid college administrators is the problem without seeing that the budget cuts at the State level are the primary reason tuition cost have risen over the past decades.

While I may sound cynical about the chances of persuading voters to revisit their assumptions, I remain hopeful that a combination of accurate information the reason for increased college costs and an effort to help voters see the connection between taxes and economic justice could change the public’s thinking on the spending priorities at the state level. Here’s hoping some Sanders-like figures arise in State elections and some grassroots organizations take on this cause.

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