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The Weakness of Strong Institutions

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.

4 thoughts on “The Weakness of Strong Institutions

  1. I have never forgotten hearing Mark Shields ask (and he may have been quoting someone else: “When did the word ‘taxes’ become ashes in the mouth of a patriot”?

  2. A very interesting post on a very interesting and pressing issue. Might the dwindling support for public Universities also be due (in part) to economics ? I am not an economist, I may be miscalculating “real” vs “actual” dollars, and I also do not know if I am looking in the best places for these numbers (just a quick Google), but best I can find, in 1960 avg family income in the US was $5,620 (in actual dollars). Using 3.76 as the avg inflation rate 1960 – 2018 I think this means that $1 in 1960 is worth about $8.50 in 2018, so avg family “inflation adjusted” income (hopefully I am using that term correctly) was $47,770 in 1960. In 2016 (most recent number I can find) avg family income was $57,617, a 1.21 fold increase relative to 1960. The cost of Univ of Maryland tuition was $670 in 1960 in actual dollars ($5695 inflation adjusted). Today it is $10,399; up 1.83 fold. Going by inflation adjusted dollars then, that doesn’t seem as bad as it could be, the cost of public Univ tuition (at least in MD) is going up relative to income but close to the same percentage in actual dollars as it was in 1960 . The small disparity in increases (1.21 vs 1.83 fold for income growth vs pubic Univ cost) might be explained by those of us in the education business suggesting that we do a better job today than in 1960. I would argue that public Univ do indeed do a better job today, which validates at least some of the cost increase. But what those *not* in our business see more often than not is the starting annual salaries for college graduates. 1960 this was about $51,000 in inflation adjusted dollars; today it is about $50,000, a slight *DEcrease*. Compounding the problem, benefits of the 1965 Higher Education Act have been seriously eroding in recent years, so the imbalance in costs vs starting salaries are not as well “buffered” by aid programs. Doesn’t that suggest that the costs of a public Univ education today are less “economically worth it” ? And the perception might be even more biased than the reality. If so, how does all of that (neglecting my no doubt shoddy math) factor into it ? How do those of us in higher education advocate for the value of college education in the face of all the complex factors that are leading to an erosion in its perceived economic value ?


  3. In return for their financial support in all of its forms (state budgetary appropriations, federal student loan guarantees, research grants, tax exemptions, charitable contributions, etc.), the public expects our colleges and universities (both public and private) to deliver higher education:

    1. At a fair and reasonable price;

    2. Which effectively advances student career prospects; and

    3. That gives a balanced presentation of the political and social values inevitably intertwined with education.

    From what I gather, the erosion of support for higher education results from a public perception that our colleges and universities are not presently upholding their end of said bargain.

    We best get to work fixing that.

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