There are few institutions in the United States that are experiencing increasing public trust over the past few years. Trust in government institutions seems unusually low.
This is a post about the higher education infrastructure of the United States. This infrastructure consists of a variegated ecology of educational and research institutions. It includes public community colleges, state and regional 4-year colleges, small private liberal arts colleges, state land-grant universities and other large state research universities, private research universities, the national laboratories, and quasi-independent research institutes. The vast majority of higher education students attend state universities; for decades, those schools have offered relatively affordable means to social mobility in the US.
In the 20th century, the large state research universities provided many of the cutting-edge discoveries in the natural and social sciences, a good deal of which found its way into applications in various pieces of the economy. They pushed forward new scholarship in the humanities and contributed to the societal culture, revolutionizing how we think about ourselves.
In the sciences, they offered a key magnet to attract the best minds throughout the world for advanced education. Many of the international students chose to stay in the US and pursue their careers, offering decades of enrichment to the country. Indeed, this pattern was doubly valuable because it coincided with a longstanding weakness of science education in K-12 schools. Without the in-migration of scientific talent, too few US residents were pursuing such higher education to permit the advanced developments we as a country now enjoy. The strength of these institutions of higher education and the ecology of different types of institutions were unparalleled in the world.
For the past few years we have been witnessing the dismantling of this ecology. Those institutions that were once so strong are now threatened. As state legislatures have annually cut tax-based support for these institutions, the schools have increased their tuition prices to replace tax sources. The increased tuition costs then have become the focus of criticism. It seems a vicious cycle.
Reflecting on these events, it is startling how quickly this destruction of government-supported higher education is occurring. How could these institutions so quickly be gutted? How could institutions seemingly so strong be manifesting such weakness? Clearly, there seems to be a breakdown in shared values. Their strength largely rested on a shared norm – that support for education was the gift of one generation to the next, both benefiting individuals but also building a strong nation. Hence, a sense of civic duty underlay this widespread support.
Did lost trust in government lead to reduced support for state-funded higher education? Or, are these independent but co-incidental events? Did the perceived lack of shared benefits lead to large sets of taxpayers critiquing the “eliteness” of higher education? Did universities forget their role in service to the society in return for financial support from the public? Does the lack of support come merely from not knowing about the earnings’ gains among college graduates? Has the growing wealth inequality (perhaps, itself connected to access to higher education) fed beliefs that these institutions are not relevant to the majority of those suffering relative deprivation?
As we see other nations increase their support for higher education and begin to enjoy the societal advancement empowered by such support, it’s doubly sad to see our country willfully diminish the strength of state-supported colleges and universities.
It’s a moment when those who potentially benefit from access to higher education need to express their support. The society that our young will inherit will be stronger with a well-educated populace. It’s a moment when those inside higher education institutions need to remember that they exist solely through the support of others; in some sense, their right to exist depends on consistent demand for their services. It’s also time when those outside these institutions need to communicate their fundamental worth to the strength of a country.