Are the state legislatures, in their support for public colleges, “sugar daddies”, or parents? Do they have a moral and structural responsibility for their public institutions, or do the institutions exist for legislatures’ own pleasure, for them to enjoy and discard according to their whims?

College critic Richard Vedder of Ohio University recently wrote a piece for See Thu Edu, a new conservative publication about higher education. Vedder’s article is about whether American higher education is “in crisis” but he uses an interesting phrase that reveals a strange perception of how American public colleges work. Vedder writes that he thinks big changes are coming in part because,

The ability of Sugar Daddies -state governments, federal loan programs, private philanthropy– to subsidize higher education is insufficient to deal with the rising cost problem -besides their desire to do so is waning.

Changes may well be coming but this is a strange way to characterize the most important trend in higher education pricing.

State governments as “sugar daddies” is certainly a compelling rhetorical device. Yea, why should they keep funding this? If they no longer find the mistress entertaining, to extend this metaphor, why should they keep funding her lifestyle?

Bullshit. State governments aren’t the “sugar daddies” of higher education; they’re just the dads. And they’re looking like deadbeats.

State colleges and universities (which 75 to 80 percent of college students attend) have, for their entire existence, derived most of their funding and direction from the states. The Land Grant Act of 1862 provided inexpensive, and often free, higher education to the citizens of each state. The federal government kicked in the initial cash, and then the states were in charge of supporting and operating the institutions for the promotion of knowledge and industry for student and the state as a whole. That’s why we have public colleges.

In the 1960s, state legislatures supported 80 percent some universities’ budgets. Today the average state provides for less than 20 percent of state universities’ general funds.

Much like real deadbeat parents, of course, the financial decisions of state legislatures are not straight-up irresponsible. Because states are in many cases constitutionally required to fund other things in state budgets, in economic downturns support for higher education naturally suffers.

Real parents aren’t necessarily failing to buy diapers and shoes because all their money is going to booze and cigarettes; they may just be too poor to support their kids. But they’re still deadbeats.

Calling state legislatures sugar daddies implies that support for higher education is the equivalent of a man who gives his mistress a diamond bracelet and a luxurious apartment downtown. He’s just doing it voluntarily, because he wants to; it makes the mistress happy. It’s a present.

It doesn’t really work like that. When the state cuts funding to schools to a bare minimum, less and less every year, it’s not like a man forcing his mistress to get a job, it like a man forcing his child to get a job, his 8-year-old child.

Sure, the 8-year-old could get some sort job, but would this be the best direction to go? Would this improve the situation? Would the kid be better off under this plan?

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