Public Universities Are Priced Out of the Working Class’ Reach


The University of Michigan at Ann Arbor is an excellent school at one of the nicest college towns in the United States. US News & World Report ranks it #28 among national universities, Forbes lists it as #30. The tuition price, according to USNWR is $13,819 in-state and $40,496 out of state. Room and board are estimated at $9,752. The university has both football, basketball and lots of other teams. I have no idea whether the following two statements are true, but they came up in conversations. From a New York parent who sent her daughter to Ann Arbor: “they’re just trying to get the out of state tuition”, and from a Michigan parent: “if you live in Michigan they send you to Michigan State.” Michigan State University is located in East Lansing and is rated #73 by USNWR, which is #20 among public universities – still awfully good.

State universities the caliber of Ann Arbor and East Lansing, along with a few others (the lists vary; it’s not like the original Harvard, Yale, Princeton group, where once you’re in the matter is settled, but University of Virginia and UC Berkeley are as close to permanent members of the Public Ivies as it’s possible to get.) State schools of this class represent a commitment to education and the future.

Michigan received a bit more Federal assistance than other states through the rescue of the automobile industry, but in general, it was representative of most other states in dealing with funding education. Two recent reports discuss the effects of the Lesser Depression on state schools, and the results are a disappointment.

In 2012, Demos, a non-profit public policy institute issued a report titled “The Great Cost Shift: How Higher Education Cuts Undermine the Future Middle Class.” About the University of Michigan it says: “... Michigan invested less in higher education in absolute and relative terms in 2008-2009 than it did almost 20 years ago despite having grown in population and wealth. Given the decline in state support, it is hardly surprising that tuition has increased in response. Between 1990-1991 and 2008-2009, the published charges for tuition and fees at Michigan’s public four-year universities rose by 24.6% while the published charges for tuition, fees, and room and board rose by 68.4%. This represents a shift in support from the state as a whole to individual students and their families.” The second report dated May 18, 2014 comes from the Institute for Policy Studies, a Washington D.C., based think tank. Its title is “The One Percent at State U: how public university profit from rising student debt and low wage faculty labor.” The report states that since 2008 executive pay at the top 25 state schools has risen dramatically. At the same time these schools are relying more heavily on part-time adjunct faculty and the use of adjuncts has increased more than twice as fast as the national average for all universities. The increase in adjuncts has been accompanied by a decline in permanent faculty.

The effect of these changes has contributed to the increases in student debt, while the quality of education has declined. While in the past there have been complaints about the effects of tenure on the quality of teaching, adjuncts are both underpaid and have less time to devote to individual students. In the majority of cases, adjuncts don’t even have offices on campus which makes individual counseling or dealing with student questions impossible. The report describes the high salaries paid to non-academic administrators at the University of Michigan. “[A] spokesperson for the university defended the salaries, claiming they were ‘at market and very competitive.’ ... salaries and unreported bonuses at the University of Michigan were 27 to 41 percent higher than those at peer institutions such as the University of Virginia and the University of Texas at Austin.”

This pattern, high executive salaries, increased tuition, increased student debt, underpaid adjunct faculty, has repeated itself at a number of state schools. The report only lists the top five most un-equal public universities with Ohio State listed first, followed by Pennsylvania State, the University of Minnesota, University of Michigan and University of Washington. The report does not make any attempt to ascribe responsibility for these changes but it seems as if these schools are being run according to a business model, more akin to Walmart than to a university. We talk about education as the road to the American dream, but some of our finest public universities seem to have lost their way.

Sam Uretsky is a writer and pharmacist living on Long Island, N.Y. Email

From The Progressive Populist, June 15, 2014

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