Saturday, July 6, 2013

Is the Future of Higher Education in Oregon?

It is a common place that higher education in the United States is under pressure.  Federal research funding, which temporarily ballooned when the hostility toward science on the part of the Bush administration was replaced by Obama’s fulsome embrace.  But it has since suffered from the general climate of austerity.  Student loan rates recently doubled overnight.  And in many states, tuition at public universities has been climbing steadily for years, placing college out of reach for many working and middle class families.  Generous scholarships on the part of some universities have helped to offset the spike, but have proved to be no substitute for affordability at the point of access.
High tuition (at the University of California it has more than doubled since I arrived as an undergraduate in 2004) forces students to take part-or full-time jobs, and punishing work schedules often prevent students from graduating in four years, meaning that they accumulate even more debt.  The University of California’s governing body, the Regents, has accepted this state of affairs, and is likely to raise tuition further in the coming years in spite of a small blip in state funding.  Their “solution” is to turn the University into a marketplace, and some campus Chancellors have sought to hasten this trend by arguing that campuses should be allowed to charge differential tuition—meaning that the likes of Berkeley and UCLA would be able to demand even higher tuition from students.

A few Californian legislators have made noises about the Regents’ stealthy moves towards privatisation, but supermajority rules, Democrats’ irresponsible commitment to fiscal fundamentalism, and sociopathic Republican obstructionism have meant that California has been distinctly un-creative when it comes to restoring the public character of its University.

But events of the last week suggest that the Golden State might do well to look north to Oregon, where legislators have proposed a “Pay it Forward” program.  According to the Statesman Journal, this program “calls for students to attend public universities tuition free and loan free.  In exchange, students would have 3 percent deducted from their post-graduate paychecks for about a quarter-century.  The money would go into a fund to pay for future students”. 

Similar programs exist in other countries (and I’d be curious to know if any other states have such a system).  There are multiple respects in which such a policy represents a far better and fairer model than what we are experimenting with in California.

In the first place, it creates no financial barrier for students looking to attend university.  Students who are the first in their families to attend university will not have to work their way through a daunting and unfamiliar morass of bureaucracy, a process with which they might receive very little help in many Californian high schools, where counsellors and other support staff have been cut to the bone.

Moreover, the money that students eventually “pay back” is tied to their earnings, which makes “tuition” into a kind of progressive tax, levied retroactively according to the benefits which accrue to individuals based on their time at university. 

What the proposed measure would not do, in my reading of the legislation, is to redress falling public support for universities in Oregon.  In other words, the burden would still fall upon individuals rather than upon society at large.  While House Bill 3472 does describe the legislative assembly’s desire to “halt the decrease in this state’s support for public education”, and a recognition that, over time, it “must increase its contribution to the funding of higher education”, there are no provisions to this effect.  The state would have to provide a certain amount of funding to get the programme off the ground, in the long term only certain members of the public are required to pay for what the legislature would still like to believe is a public good—that is, the students themselves.

The bill calls attention to the urgency of finding “another approach to financing the students’ share of the cost of public higher education”.  The distinction—between the students’ share and the state’s share—illustrates the limits of “Pay it Forward”, which does not attempt to address the public de-funding of the universities, but to keep a firmer, fairer hand on the system to ensure that students can afford to attend university.

I’m not sure how I feel about this. 

Pay it Forward is obviously better than the status quo, whereby spectacularly expensive up-front tuition hits students as they come in the door, and devastating loans get them on the way out, generally irrespective of whether they find a well-paying job.  It seems to me that Oregon’s legislators deserve praise for their pro-activity, their creativity, and for having their hearts in the right place.  A measure like Pay it Forward will make life better for students, and through them, for Oregonians.

At the same time, it’s a little sad to see that even the best solutions on the horizon do not call upon the public to recommit itself to funding higher education out of a recognition of mutual obligations that members of a society have to one another, or from a recognition of the benefits that accrue en masse to a society which takes care to educate its youth. 

Nonetheless, it is encouraging to see a state take seriously the necessity to call time on the bankrupt mentality which has plunged students into debt and thrown up exclusionary walls around state universities.  While it does not fully address the crisis of public higher education, Oregon’s proposals would at least allow young Oregonians to enter institutions of higher learning as equals, and to know that when they pay back to these institutions, it will be in a way which reflects their ability to do so. 

Let’s hope that this effort will inspire Oregon’s public to reflect on whether all citizens of the state should pay towards the education of their youth according to their means.  And Californians should be looking north to see if they can learn from this experiment.

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