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Cuts at public universities destroy future prosperity

Posted: May 8, 2011 - 8:10pm  |  Updated: May 9, 2011 - 6:11am

COLUMBUS, Ohio — Reduced state funding of public colleges and universities will result in what? We know the inevitable answer: higher tuition for students.

For example, in North Carolina undergraduate tuition increased an average of 23 percent last year in the face of cuts in state funding. Yet North Carolina’s John William Pope Center for Higher Education Policy calls for even more “significant cuts” in higher education funding in that state.

In Ohio, the state’s governor has proposed cutting education funding by more than $3.1 billion. Cuts at such catastrophic levels would be a disaster for students. They are all the more disastrous because they come when the student-loan crisis is making it harder for students to pay for college.

Even without another wave of funding cuts, America’s college graduates are becoming an indentured educated class. Young people currently graduate with an average of more than $24,000 in student-loan debt.

It is not only the students who suffer but society as a whole. When students graduate with high debts, they rarely choose a career in public service, teaching, social work or other low-paid caring professions. Instead, they are forced to go into the corporate sector. This seems to be a calculated part of a larger political strategy to disempower students.

We need the creative energies of our college graduates more than ever. Brains trained at public universities are needed to power America out of the Great Recession.

Cutting support for higher education in difficult times is short-sighted. It is the equivalent of eating the seed corn for a prosperous future. We must not destroy the foundations for a better future. Education is the single best investment a society can make.

The same forces calling for slashing funding for education are assaulting our dignity with their relentless attack on public life and its myriad democratic institutions: the social state, public education, and the social good.

The looming gigantic debt that students are forced to carry is indicative of the degree to which young people are no longer viewed as a positive symbol of the future. We are failing to provide our children with the conditions that would enable them to enter into a future that is better than one to which previous generations had access.

Higher education benefits everyone in a sustainable democracy, not just faculty and students. Education is the great engine of opportunity in a democracy. Public colleges and universities are critical. They provide quality higher education to many who would be out-in-the-cold if the only option were the private institutions.

Working-class families and middle-class families must have access to higher education. Higher education is the key to economic prosperity. Education is the path into the middle class. If we are going to have a strong democracy, we must have a strong middle class. The last thing a democracy needs is a less-educated electorate.

We cannot afford to price our public colleges and universities beyond the reach of lower-class and middle-class students. Students are being asked to “bear any burden” when states cut college funding. Cutting state support of public colleges creates barriers to students that have a dramatic negative impact on equality of opportunity — the centerpiece of the American dream.

• Wilson is an associate professor of labor law at Ohio State University’s Moritz College of Law.

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