The Complex History of Public Education in the U.S.

July 10, 2015

This feature is part of an ongoing RSF blog series, Work in Progress, which highlights some of the research of our current class of Visiting Scholars.

During her time in residence at the Foundation, Elizabeth Shermer (Loyola) has worked on a book that examines the origins of the contemporary crisis in public higher education. She argues that contrary to popular belief, state universities have always been subject to market forces. Shermer finds that there was never enough government funding to create a geographically-uniform system of mass higher education, and that as a result, public universities have long been influenced by private sector interests.

In a new interview with the Foundation, Shermer discussed the complex history of the rise of public education in the U.S. and recommended policies for expanding access to higher education for low-income students.

Q. Your current research challenges the popular myth of a "golden era" of public higher education by demonstrating how, from the very beginning, state schools experienced a number of funding problems and relied on different public-private partnerships to grow. Can you briefly flesh out the history of one state school to illustrate how public higher education's growth always required ties to a variety of different businesses and institutions?

One of the best examples is Arizona State University, which was a failing teacher’s college in the 1930s. Business interests were critical to building the school in Tempe (then a small farming community about 50 miles from the state capitol). But the area Chamber of Commerce had no real interest in the school. The college’s president, Grady Gammage, had to beg state and federal representatives to let him apply for New Deal monies. And local retailers, bankers, lawyers, and newspaper owners remained uninterested in the school even when these Chamber leaders began a concerted push to attract industry in the early 1940s.

Even though training classes for military recruits and war-production workers were vital to bring federal investment into the area, these small and mid-sized business owners dismissed Gammage’s promise that this school’s growth would be vital to transforming central Arizona. The only reason Gammage was able to turn this teacher’s college into a liberal arts college was veteran demand for more educational options. He made campus expansion patriotic, which helped him rename the school Arizona State College but did not secure much additional state revenue. He may have been able to get more money if Chamber leaders had been interested in the school.

They only started to care after Motorola executive Daniel Noble emphasized a university’s importance to attracting corporate investment in the area. Noble headed the non-profit started to accept business donations to build the school into a university. Reaching university status not only relied on local business support in the legislature but also corporate investment in departments and programs because the Regents may have called Arizona State a college but it did not yet have the facilities, professors, or resources of one for years later. Business support would also remain important as local, state, and federal support retreated after 1970.

Most recently, ASU has partnered with Starbucks. The school’s online program is now the only institution where baristas can use their educational benefits, an agreement that has saved the coffee empire money and provided ASU with a captive student body.

Q. The GI Bill, which allowed a large number of veterans to enter higher education, has long been considered a huge political and economic success. Yet, you've found that by spurring an influx of undergraduates, the bill also inadvertently led to some major shifts in public higher education. What were some of these consequences, and how did they shape higher education as we know it today?

The GI Bill, in retrospect, looks like a double-edge sword. The 1944 act gave veterans unprecedented access to higher education, which has been shown to have helped them attain better jobs, wages, and benefits in the long run. The GI Bill also brought a flood of new students to college campuses. Many of these veterans had race, class, and ethnic backgrounds, which would have once kept them from even dreaming of admission to colleges (even if they could have afforded tuition). These GIs tended to outshine traditional students on campuses, which helped end arguments that mass higher education was impossible. Mass higher education soon came to be considered socially desirable, which benefitted the Greatest Generation’s children, the Baby Boomers who flooded campuses about twenty years later.

But the GI Bill also unintentionally made mass higher education economically imperative for schools. Direct federal funding for schools, especially if they were private or religious, had long been considered unconstitutional because it violated the principles of local control, educational autonomy, and federalism. Federally-paid tuition, however, was an indirect means of sending money to schools, which both incentivized and rewarded schools for accepting veterans. This money often went to the kind of campus improvements and expansions that would make it possible schools to prepare for future generations of students, like the Baby Boomers. However, federal officials purposefully set the maximum tuition payment higher than Harvard’s fees, which encouraged cash-strapped schools to raise their rates. All students paid more for their schools but only former service personnel had help paying the bill, which explains why they did disproportionately better in attaining the kind of coursework and degrees that would lead to better financial security after graduation.

Q. Given that public university funding has always been fraught, what kinds of policies could better address the fiscal crisis in higher education and expand educational access to low-income students?

Undergraduates are paying more and getting less. The most important thing local, state, and federal governments can do is more fully support higher education so that schools do not have to waste their resources fundraising, can cease competing for students through the kind of costly perks that do not aid education or research, and stop passing rising costs onto enrollees. Hence, better funding should also come with the oversight to make sure the money is going to the public outreach, student instruction, and pathbreaking research needed to ensure that universities, whether public or private, remain social goods.

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