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Continued privatization of UI has negative impact in many areas

BY DI EDITORIAL BOARD | FEBRUARY 23, 2010 7:30 AM

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Is the University of Iowa a state university?

Avoid a paroxysm of indignation, and think it through for a moment. This school year, tuition and fees made up the majority of the UI’s general-fund revenue — approximately 51 percent. State appropriations dipped to $235.48 million, around 41 percent of revenue.

The drop is a reflection of the shift over the past few decades toward a state-university system increasingly funded by student tuition, rather than money appropriated by the Legislature.

In the 1979-80 school year, state appropriations composed 76 percent of the UI’s revenue, an astounding 35 percentage points higher than this school year. So what happened? Over the next two decades, appropriations steadily declined, and in the 2000-01 school year, state funding accounted for 62 percent of the UI’s revenue. In the ensuing decade, legislators hit the UI’s revenue stream even harder. In just two years — fiscal 2002 to fiscal 2004 — appropriations nose-dived 11 percentage points. And this school year, for the first time, tuition money funded a majority of the university’s general-education budget.

The privatization is also seen in funding for scholarships. Scholarship money financed by tuition revenue increased by 13 percent this year — an ostensible boon that merely underscores the drift toward private financing of public needs.

The privatization has had (and will continue to have) profound implications. Higher education has two principal goals: to prepare students for postgraduation employment and help them develop the civic skills essential to democratic participation. The insidious reliance on tuition dollars has a negative effect on both.

Several drivers account for the decline in funding, Regent Robert Downer said. For one, health-care costs have grown astronomically, causing the cost of such government programs as Medicaid to rise.

In addition, Downer said, antitax sentiments have negatively affected higher-education appropriations. When revenue was high in the late 1990s, lawmakers passed a round of tax cuts.

Both parties have been reluctant to raise taxes since, fearing electoral consequences, Downer said.

That has left the state short on revenue, because antitax opinions have obfuscated the positives of public goods.

“One of the things that has been lost sight of is the fact that society as a whole benefits from a highly educated populace,” Downer said. “Education is not something that is just for the benefit of the recipient.”

Perhaps the most obvious pitfall of miserly state funding is a less-educated workforce. When accessibility to higher education drops, education levels stagnate.

A 2009 study by the nonpartisan research group Public Agenda confirms this. The group surveyed 600 young adults aged 22-30 who had completed college coursework. Of those surveyed, 75 percent said they had to work full-time, so they couldn’t return to school and juggle the two. In addition, 55 percent of respondents cited a lack of affordability as a reason not to complete their higher-education coursework. In our global economy, in which the United States must remain competitive internationally, these numbers are disastrous.

The strength of public universities lies in its support from the state. Its ideal is as the great equalizer, ensuring opportunity and a certain amount of egalitarianism for high-school graduates from all types of backgrounds. The drift toward privatization inevitably decreases accessibility because of the intentions inherent in private education. To say so isn’t to point out some kind of evil avarice endemic to private universities. It’s simply reality. Even if a private school makes it a priority to enroll low-income students — and does so successfully — it can’t provide the wide swath of programs or facilities at the relatively low cost a well-funded state university can.

Private funding can also affect the academic autonomy of universities. While affluent alumni may prefer to financially buoy a certain department or program, it may not be in the best interest of the university. Increasingly privately funded public universities can narrow the programs offered, and education can suffer as a result.

“The University of Iowa is not going to be a great university if the only emphasis on quality comes within programs that have wealthy alumni,” Downer said. “There has to be a leveling out of this, and there has to be support given to important areas that don’t have huge donor bases.

While Downer called donor support critical, “it also cannot be the sole determiner of where the university’s resources are placed.” He is right. The UI shouldn’t be misconstrued as a business, intent on maximizing donor support and cursory in its emphasis on building exceptional, diverse programs.

In addition, while it’s vital the university continues to churn out graduates prepared for the workforce, our higher-education system should reflect (and bolster) our democracy. Authoritarian countries (e.g., China) can produce a highly skilled workforce that is bereft of any citizen power. Our higher-education system shouldn’t merely produce technocrats adept at performing their jobs, yet unable to think critically and democratically. As Henry Giroux astutely noted in his book Take Back Higher Education, “When education is reduced to training, the meaning of self-government is devalued, and democracy is rendered meaningless.”

Admittedly, the status quo isn’t good.

The Intercollegiate Studies Institute found that just 24 percent of college graduates know the First Amendment bars the government from establishing an official religion. Still, the state should focus on strengthening civic education — not cutting funding. Continuing on the current path would decrease accessibility to higher education even more and, in turn, create a quasi-plutocratic citizenry.

How, you may ask? Public universities offer students a variety of opinions and viewpoints, allowing them to question societal orthodoxies and personal dogmas. Students develop analytical skills that are paramount to evaluating policies and vetting candidates. Ideally, graduates would also be competent at scrutinizing news content, recognizing biases, and questioning individuals in positions of power.

That’s not to say private universities can’t mold intelligent students into critical citizens. But state universities are specifically designed to educate the bulk of high-school graduates in the state. In 2008 alone, almost 35,000 students graduated from public high-schools in the state, according to the Iowa Department of Education. When legislators undercut the major higher-education providers in the state, they concurrently impede the development of democratic skills and values for an enormous swath of Iowans.

As Thomas Jefferson, the founder of the University of Virginia, once said, “If a nation expects to be ignorant and free … it expects what never was and never will be.” In a democratic society, higher education’s duty is to extirpate that ignorance, fostering intelligent citizens who can think and act freely. When legislators continue to underfund state universities, they aren’t just hurting the workforce or the state’s economy. They’re weakening democracy itself.

So is the UI a state university? Yes — for now. But legislators should be wary of continued divestment. Public versus private isn’t just semantics. For society writ large, it’s the difference between having a nation of able workers and engaged citizens — or an ignorant workforce and a sclerotic citizenry.


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