Something is going very wrong with American public universities. According to an article by David Glenn in the Chronicle of Higher Education:

The ideal of American public higher education may have entered a death spiral, several scholars said here Thursday during a panel discussion at the annual meeting of the American Political Science Association. That crisis might ultimately harm not only universities, but also democracy itself, they warned.

“We’ve crossed a threshold,” said Clyde W. Barrow, director of the Center for Policy Analysis at the University of Massachusetts at Dartmouth. “Higher education is no longer viewed as a public good in this country. As tuition at public universities becomes more expensive, middle-class parents say, ‘I’ll bite the bullet and pay this for four years, but I don’t want to pay for it a second time with taxes.’ And families who are frozen out of the system see public universities as something for the affluent.”

This is a seriously good point. Many people have said something like this before but much of the discussion about public higher education degenerates into weak statements about how it would be rather nice if college were cheaper.

President Obama has called “for the United States to reclaim its spot as the world leader in college graduation by the year 2020.” This goal has triggered a frankly inane fight about whether community colleges or for-profit schools can best make this happen.

In fact, both community colleges (average graduation rate: 25 percent) and for-profit schools (median graduation rate: 38 percent) do an abysmal job educating students.

Meanwhile, America is letting public, four-year schools—the only education sector with a proven record of getting first generation college students a thorough, high-quality, low cost education—erode into overpriced colleges and universities that serve no one in the way they were intended.

Wendy Brown, a professor of political science at Berkeley, said that she worries the American public will give up on public college as a way to promote full education and democratic citizenship. As she explained at the American Political Science Association meeting:

Instead, all of public higher education will be essentially vocational in nature, oriented entirely around the market logic of job preparation. Instead of educating whole persons, Ms. Brown warned, universities will be expected to “build human capital,” a narrower and more hollow mission.

State universities do not exist to give rich people a “good deal” on college for their kids. It’s fine if that happens but that’s an incidental benefit. The reason the United States has public colleges is to provide inexpensive education to middle and low income families. This appears to be a slow-moving crisis of epic proportions.

Daniel Luzer

Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer