Ever rising college costs, and affiliated debt, are now well known enough in America for the issue to be a significant talking point in the early stages of this presidential race.

The likely effectiveness of many candidates’ proposals is a matter of considerable debate, but at least a few private citizens appear to be taking on the matter themselves. Rich people love to give money to colleges.


But we shouldn’t go too far to commend these efforts, argues William Deresiewicz in the latest issue of the Nation. The fact that we’re so interested in big donations to colleges is symptomatic of the real problem; we’re just not funding higher education the way we really need to.

Stanford University received a lot of good publicity when it announced in March that it would waive undergraduate tuition for families making less than $125,000 a year. The initiative was one of several of late responding to the growing problem of access to higher education: economic stratification at elite colleges, rising tuition and student debt at all colleges. The following month, the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation debuted a $1 million annual prize to promote economic diversity at selective schools.

That’s great, and efforts like these can be found across higher education, particularly at America’s most selective schools. The story goes like this: School X is a really impressive, selective institution that rates pretty high in the U.S. News rankings, and performs impressive research, but recently the president of School X got worried because it’s not really doing a great job educating poor and minority students. In fact, the school barely has any poor students at all.

And so the president talks to some people and does some work and eventually announces an initiative, funded by generous alumni and a few nonprofits, to increase the number of low income and first generation students at the school. And everyone praises the president and the school gets a lot more applications from poor an minority students.

But this doesn’t really matter, writes Deresiewicz, because here’s what’s really going on:

Call it Clintonism, to go along with Reaganism. Reaganism—tax cuts, deregulation, anti-unionism—has meant that the rich and affluent receive the lion’s share of disposable income. As president, Bill Clinton ratified Reaganism as a bipartisan consensus. As a former president, through the Clinton Global Initiative and other efforts, he has led the way in extending its logic from the economic to the moral sphere, the sphere of philanthropy, nonprofits, do-gooding, “service.”

Now that the rich have all the cash, and raising taxes is considered unthinkable, we have no choice but to rely increasingly on the rich—whether individuals, institutions, or corporations—to do the things that governments should do, including funding higher education.

It shouldn’t really be notable when working class people attend and succeed in college. That could just be standard. But today state funding per-student is lower than it was in 1980. We could fix that by restoring the principles that used to undergird public policy in the twentieth century.

What we need to do is recommit ourselves to low- or no-cost high-quality higher education, as we did in the decades after World War II. That will take a lot more than talk. It will take money—yes, tax money, not from the 1 percent alone, but from the whole of the top 10 percent, whose share of national income now stands at 50 percent, an all-time high. In other words, from the so-called meritocracy… the beneficiaries of our massively unequal system.

“Is raising taxes to pay for great, free public higher education really unthinkable?” Deresiewicz askes. Well, it’s hard, for sure, because it requires us to ask tough questions and rethink how we fund this massive project that is American higher education. It’s also essentially in contrast to the direction American colleges have been moving over the last 30 years.

But this problem isn’t going to solve itself. We cannot expect the rich to donate public policy solutions to this country. If we don’t make some government effort to restore affordable, large-scale public higher education, the things that worry policymakers about young people today are only going to get worse. It will mean more debt, fewer homebuyers, lower graduation rates, limited economic mobility, and more social unrest.

We’d only have ourselves to blame.

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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