The time to reinvest in higher education is now

More than a week into worldwide protests against racial injustice in the United States, the glaring resource discrepancy between police departments and other public services—including health care, social services, and education—is more apparent than ever. Calls abound to reduce funding to police departments, and are already having an effect. NYC Mayor Bill de Blasio has announced that he will shift some NYPD funding into youth services, and the Minneapolis City Council recently moved to disband the police department all together.

Shifting funds away from punitive measures like policing and incarceration would immediately open up significant opportunities to better support individuals and communities. Education has long been a place where budget cuts happen first when city and state budgets are tight, something that the City University of New York is facing right now. Even though CUNY’s summer enrollment is up 17% as more students look to affordable online learning options in the midst of COVID-19, CUNY is bracing for budget cuts of 10-25%, which will entail significant course reductions and mass layoffs of adjunct faculty. Students from marginalized racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic backgrounds will likely be hurt most significantly by these cuts, given that many are already in precarious positions—not only with respect to their education, but also with respect to their health, safety, and financial well-being. These compounding factors have been brought into painful clarity by the combined effects of COVID and police brutality. Black lives matter.

At the very least, now is a time to re-examine funding priorities. More than that, we have a unique opportunity to both bolster funding to education while also reimagining how educational structures function. With classrooms shuttered and the future uncertain, now is the time to redesign the higher education system so that it better serves all students—and, by extension, the public. We can do this by reinvesting in public education. Such change is possible; after decades of underinvestment, the state of California has recently begun to restore funding to the University of California and California State systems. Other states must follow suit. Only with more robust public support can public colleges and universities fulfill their responsibility to do work that is meaningful to their communities.

The rapid shift to online teaching lays bare the precarious labor structures that enable higher education to function. With campuses emptied of students and faculty, food services and facilities management are not needed, and many service workers have already been laid off. But that’s not all. In recent years, colleges and universities nationwide have relied heavily on contingent faculty members, often hired on a course-by-course basis with low wages and no benefits. This trend has become a crisis, with over 70% of the teaching workforce on short-term contracts. As colleges try to stave off financial shortfalls, many adjuncts will lose their jobs—a risk that already looms at Ivy League and public institutions alike, including the City University of New York’s John Jay College. Colleges have failed these workers. Faculty, administrators, and legislators have an opportunity now to think differently about labor, and to rebuild in a way that invests in higher education’s most important responsibility—teaching. But to prioritize such a significant change, public advocacy is urgently needed.

Public colleges and universities were in dire financial straits long before the pandemic due to chronic defunding by state legislatures. The University of Colorado, for example, receives less than 5% of its budget from tax dollars. The lack of funding has a major impact on learning, especially in light of the pandemic. Students in underfunded institutions already faced an uphill battle to obtain their degrees. Now, these same students are not only hampered by the rapid shift to online learning, many are also more vulnerable to COVID itself. In vast public systems like CUNY, crowded classrooms and deteriorating infrastructure make social distance and even proper handwashing impossible. Many of these students have historically been underserved by higher education and social services. They face housing insecurity and hunger, and often work in low-wage jobs that cannot be performed remotely. Illness, unemployment, and mourning are terrible new obstacles standing between these students and their goals.

If students cannot succeed, neither can the university. The pandemic is showing that publicly relevant research and teaching are key to our humanity and shared survival. Scientific research allows us to learn about transmission, treatment, and vaccination. Social sciences help explain the political, economic, and social structures that make this crisis that hit some people so much harder than others. The humanities help us to understand historical context, as well as the human, emotional, relational factors that make this a mental health crisis. And all over the world, people are turning to the arts as they look for signs of beauty and hope amidst pain and panic.

To be sure, no quick action can solve systemic racism or decades of underinvestment. There’s a major risk right now that the inequalities of higher education will deepen. The House recently approved a $3 trillion bill that would offer short-term support to public colleges and universities nationwide, but it may not even be put to a vote in the Senate. In New York, the state and city budgets approved by Governor Cuomo and Mayor de Blasio are forcing institutional leaders to make sharp budget cuts that may lead to significant job losses and reductions in course offerings. The most vulnerable students may drop out, while more privileged students may decide that CUNY’s affordability makes sense if classes are all online anyway. Such a change could dramatically shift institutional demographics, leading CUNY’s vibrant multicultural student body to become whiter, wealthier, and more homogeneous.

A few months ago, the idea that every college and university in the US could shift to emergency online learning would have seemed impossible. And yet, that is exactly what happened. The rapid change is a reminder that the structures of higher education may feel immutable, but they were created by people—and can be changed. We can start today by reinvesting in public education.

Cross-posted from my personal website. Image by Sticker You on Unsplash


The Futures Initiative
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