Your Alma Mater’s Biggest Rival? Stingy State Government
The author is part of the new doc Starving the Beast, which lays bare how right-wing state governments have decimated higher education.
A hypothesis: Go to any two-bit campaign rally in Louisiana, and before there’s any politicking, I bet you’ll hear this: How ‘bout ‘dem Tigers?
The guy running for dog catcher may even give you the box score.
College football season, which is now in full swing, has always intermingled itself with the election cycle—and that makes perfect sense. Whether it’s Razorback red or Stanford cardinal or even LSU purple, it’s always been very good politics to wear the school colors. And it’s always been very bad politics to spit on your alma mater.
Unfortunately, that’s what a lot of politicians have been doing lately, particularly those legislators of the conservative stripe. They may show their school spirit on Saturday while watching the game. But on Monday, many go to work with the intention of decimating every other aspect of that very same institution—the laboratories, the classrooms, the science fairs, and debate societies. Go visit any state capital, and you’ll likely find that conservatives have been engaged in a long, brutal battle to starve America’s finest colleges of funding.
Look at Wisconsin, for example, where the conservative governor, Scott Walker, has taken cheddar cheese grater to the higher ed budget. After he slashed $300 million from the University of Wisconsin system last year, the flagship campus in Madison had to fire 400 employees and cancel 320 courses.
Or there’s Kansas, where the Koch Brothers’ sock-puppet, Sam Brownback, just welcomed all the Jayhawks back to school with a 5 percent education cut across the board.
Then, there’s my alma mater, Louisiana State University. Thanks to Governor Bobby "Rebellion Is Brewing" Jindal, the school has lost 80 percent of its government funding over the past eight years. My daughter is beginning her freshman year there now, and by the time she finishes her mid-terms, there might not be a nursing program.
This is happening all over the country. Today, government investment in public colleges is less than half of what it was in 1980, and the reason why is pretty simple: A lot of conservative politicians just don’t like the idea of public education. They don’t believe that government should be investing in universities like UNC, or LSU, or UC Berkeley. Instead, they think that those public institutions should be run like businesses, without much government support. In the words of the top policy guru at the conservative think tank, The Texas Public Policy Foundation, “In the last decade of economic malaise…businesses have had to learn to do more with less. But when universities are asked to contribute their fair share to this effort, the answer is… ‘austerity for thee, but not for me.’”
“How much longer will we put up with this,” he asks. “No longer.”
This is a policy debate most people probably aren’t aware of, and yet it’s the most consequential fight over American higher education in more than a century. It’s also the subject of Starving the Beast, a new documentary I’m proud to be a part of.
For over 150 years, state universities in America have followed the vision of a minor historical figure named Abraham Lincoln. In 1862, Lincoln took a break from saving the Union and signed the Morrill Land Grant Act, which laid the groundwork for nearly every major public university, from Ohio State to the campuses in the University of California system. More important, it cemented the idea that a student shouldn’t pay for a college diploma all by himself. Instead, the state should invest in that student because a well-informed, well-trained populace benefits the whole country.
Under this model, America grew from a nation where we educated surgeons in the back of barbershops to a country with more than half of the world’s top universities. Public institutions have educated the majority of our nation’s leaders, including at least 31 of the 54 current Republican U.S. senators. (Heck, I was raised in a swamp, and even I was able to get my degree thanks to a public university.)
Nevertheless, many politicians and think tanks now look at this same educational system, and they say they’re no longer willing to pay. Higher education, they say, needs a new financial model. And their solution is to treat knowledge like a commodity, like a barrel of oil, or an ounce of gold, or a blue chip stock. A college degree is just a bill of sale. And therefore, the people receiving it—the students—are just customers. They should bear the cost.
The result has been a sea change in who pays for an educated workforce. Compared to three-and-a-half decades ago, states now pay 50 percent less for higher education while students pay 500 percent more for tuition. And that bill is only going up. Thanks to budget cuts, the University of Kansas just raised a semester’s tuition by $200. At LSU, they just jacked my daughter’s tuition bill up by 11 percent. (She’ll be fine. I haven’t dipped into her college fund for my gambling habit. Yet.)
Indeed, much of America’s student debt crisis can be traced back to this big, dumb shift in how we view college—as less of a public good, and more like a latte or a six-pack of beer (i.e. something that benefits the student alone). In 1976, a semester at UC Berkeley cost $650. You didn’t need a loan to pay for that; you just needed a paper route. Today, tuition at universities like Berkeley often exceeds $10,000, and the sum total of America’s student debt needed to pay for it is larger than the GDP of Mexico.
In the meantime, this experiment to turn colleges into businesses—to transform LSU into LS Inc. or Cal State into Cal LLC—has not helped higher education one iota. In fact, last year, Bobby Jindal proposed additional higher ed cuts so deep that LSU would’ve had to shut its doors for a whole year.
The only thing that kept the university doors open—and got the politicians to pony up the cash—was the football team. The university president said that if the college shut down, so must the stadium. And the great cry went out from every sofa and truck bed in the state, “God forbid, we can’t watch our Tigers.”
In the end, this may be the saving grace for my alma mater and the thousands of other fine institutions like it—that holy union of democracy and Astroturf.
If politicians want to keep the football, then they should have to keep the college, too.
James Carville is a political strategist, commentator, and professor at Tulane University in New Orleans. He’s the author of the new book, We’re Right, They’re Wrong: Them Democrats’ Case for 2016.