Governor Schwarzenegger has proposed cutting $1.1 billion from the California State University and the University of California systems for fiscal year 2008-09. Governor Spitzer is preparing a State of the State speech in which he is expected to call for an additional $3 billion to support research in New York’s universities, add 2,000 new full-time faculty members to SUNY, and recruit “250 top scholars over five years.” The Boston Globe editorializes that “Massachusetts has to catch up on faculty hiring,” lest it fall behind in the state-by-state race in the “knowledge economy.”
The Globe editorial also states the premise behind this competition: “Across the country, public higher education is good for people’s hearts, minds, and economic future.”
If so, our cardiac, cerebral, and financial prospects this year should feel better than ever—7.5 percent better, to be exact. According to the Center for the Study of Educational Policy at Illinois State University, that’s the overall increase in state-tax support for higher education in 2007-08. The Chronicle of Higher Education reports on the study that we now spend $77.5 billion on this support, and the 7.5 percent increase this year is “the highest annual increase since 1985.” Obviously, the increase was spread evenly among the states. North Dakota came in first, with a 19.1 percent increase. But there were increases in state expenditures in every state except Rhode Island, where expenditures fell 1.2 percent. The Chronicle adds that most of the increases outpaced inflation for the year, which officially stands at 4.3 percent.
A fair number of critics point out that increases in spending on public higher education do not reliably advance the economies of the states. A great deal depends on whether the increases succeed in producing graduates four years, eight years, ten years down the road whose knowledge, skills, and ambitions match the special needs of business and industry at that point. Governor Spitzer is placing his bets on stem cell research and nanotechnology. But the picture is murky. How many of those 2,000 new faculty members will work in these fields and how many will fill the urgent need for new professors of post-colonialism and gender studies? How many of the students who do gain in-demand skills are going to stay in New York?
The “people’s hearts” part of the Boston Globe formulation is surely more to the point than the people’s minds or the economic future. Americans do have a heart-felt conviction that spending public money on higher education is good for our society. And up to a point, it must be. We would rather have—and be part of—an educated citizenry than an ignorant one. But the intuitions of the heart aren’t very reliable when it comes to figuring out proportionality. Is $77.5 billion too little? Will Governor Schwarzenegger be thrashed about the ears for reducing the total by $1.1 billion? Will Governor Spitzer ride in triumph for adding $3 billion? Part of the problem is that a significant slice of the higher education dollar goes to junk education: to students who graduate with very modest skills and nothing approaching a solid education, regardless of whether we define a solid education in terms of practical knowledge or liberal arts well-roundedness.
The SUNY system, viewed from a moderate distance, has massive over-capacity, because many of 67-some campuses, spread throughout the state, come nowhere close to filling up. But it is unlikely that the debate in New York is going to dwell on the actual efficiency of the Governor’s proposed expenditures in making New York more competitive. Coast to coast, it is politically easy to spend public money on higher education, but exceptionally hard to do it wisely.