Context for the proposed increase is important. NSHE officials operate in a political environment that is often neglectful or dysfunctional. Nevada’s political economy has not historically been conducive to robust public institutions. And by national standards, tuition and fees in Nevada remain low. The latter point was one that administrators were particularly keen to stress. Things at NSHE could be worse, they argued, and their “modest” increases were only tracking unavoidable national trends. There was also a “because we can” element to NSHE’s argument, which was based on national “cost of living” data rather than on the ability to cite any compelling need to increase the burden on students.
Tracking a bad trend is not a good argument. And doubling down on a bad model is particularly self-destructive at a time when growing numbers of Americans are familiarizing themselves with arguments for or examples of systems with reduced or eliminated tuition. Many U.S. public universities were, only a few decades ago, nearly free at the point of entry, supported by taxpayers who recognized the long-term public and private value associated with investing in the education of young people. This truly public model of higher education is also something enjoyed by students in many other countries around the world.
Strong public institutions and frameworks for the delivery of welfare and of guaranteeing social and economic rights are not only more just, in that they help those who need help, diminish the stigma of means-tested welfare, and perform badly needed forms of redistribution in our highly unequal society. They are also more robust. By ensuring that all members of society, across class, racial, geographic, and other boundaries all access precisely the same good for the same cost, and then all contribute to funding our institutions as taxpayers, they ensure that all members of society have something at stake, making public institutions genuinely civic enterprises.
Instead of successfully leveraging the importance of these national conversations and citing the examples of successful cases elsewhere, NSHE is joining other American universities in participating in what scholar Christopher Newfield called the “great mistake”: the slow and harmful privatization of public institutions. On the one hand then, NSHE officials pursue policy recommendations that are partly constrained by the--to all appearances limited--scope of their imaginations, and simultaneously structured by a noncommittal state.
On the other, whatever factors are involved in the decision, raising tuition at a public institution, by whatever amount for whatever constituency over whatever number of years, represents a failure. More specifically, it represents a failure of public policy and an abdication of responsibility by state government, and a failure of advocacy and of mission by university officials.
Officials defended increasing the contributions from students and their families as burden-sharing, but our students already contribute more than previous generations, even as wages stagnate, housing costs rise, and debt increases. They also share doubly in the burden, as taxpayers and as “customers,” a status which degrades the learning experience that in theory should remain at the heart of our institution’s work.
Behind these increases are a set of competing demands and imperatives: the quest for top tier status and the costs associated with a more robust research university, particularly at a time when federal funding for the public research endeavors which drive private development is collapsing; new infrastructure; increasing demands for higher education; upward trending administrative salaries; and the perverse sentiment I’ve heard expressed quietly on campus that too-low tuition could actually hurt universities’ reputations admidst the steady drive to introduce damaging market principles into institutions which should be driven by a different set of motivations. NSHE and the legislature are responsible for reconciling those demands in a manner which does not compromise universities’ public mission and character.
Student critics at the town hall requested increased transparency from NSHE officials. But they should also ask why, in contrast with other moments in the history of public universities, students rather than the public at large are required to shoulder the costs of funding a public good that benefits our entire state community, private and public interests alike. They should ask how the state can reconcile its latent libertarian sensibilities with the demands of a more diverse population that has higher expectations of its public sphere. They should ask why their generation should not enjoy the public support for their future that previous generations did.
Students should pressure legislators, who provide the parameters in which university administrators make decisions about funding. Those administrators make comparatively better or relatively worse arguments about the rationale for their decisions, but students and the state community should realize that a university can only be as public--and therefore, as accessible and affordable--as its legislators and voters are willing to make it. If the most productive focus is likely on public officials, students should continue to dialogue with and confront NSHE administrators, who can choose--as California’s administrators did ten years ago--to embrace rhetoric and practice which makes a return to a more public university unlikely. NSHE Regents are particularly important figures, not just as the figures who will vote on proposed increases. They are also elected officials who will react if they feel pressure, and can pass on their anxieties to legislators.
Many might question why it’s worth making a fuss over such small increases. But when it comes to keeping public institutions public, and resisting the erosion of our civic institutions, momentum counts for a great deal. Processes like privatization and the erosion of the public welfare are generally long and slow and difficult to discern rather than swift and spectacular, and should be resisted at every opportunity.
UNLV’s motto is “different, daring, and diverse.” NSHE and Nevada can prove that we are indeed “different” and “daring” by resisting the ill-advised national trend of shifting the costs of public goods to students. Doing so can contribute toward preserving and increasing the diversity of our universities and colleges. Nevadans can commit to shouldering the burden for students who will later do their bit as taxpayers, and officials could halt or even roll back the costs to students and their families.