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21st Century Higher Education in America: A Reason for Alarm?

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By William Clements
October 8, 2018

A plurality of journal and news articles expound on the integral role of higher education in the shaping of the American economy. As a taxpayer, it is hard to escape the role of taxes in ensuring that education is affordable to those who need it most. The concept of taxation can be explained as the government’s right to individual taxpayer earnings increasing while the individual taxpayer’s individuality and liberty will be diminished regarding that which was obtained legally (wages). In 2019, the federal budget will be at a staggering $4.407 trillion while the amount received by the government will be a whopping $3.442 trillion in revenue generated mostly from Americans through payroll and income taxes (2019 Federal Budget). Tuition and fees of private universities have risen 157 percent, out-of-state tuition and fees at public universities have risen 194 percent and in-state tuition for public universities has risen an astounding 237 percent within the past 20 years (Rising Tuition and Fees). Polls such as Civis Analytics have demonstrated that the majority of Americans believe higher education is critical to social mobility. Is it possible that something more alarming is afoot when framing the question this way: is the reason for rising higher education cost due to the importance of this service in opening avenues of social mobility for low-income and middle-income American citizens and their families?

Rising tuition costs and the importance of higher education to the American public should be analyzed. There have been spikes over 150 percent in tuition and fees within the past 20 years while the inflation rate in 1998 was 1.6 percent and in 2017 was only 2.7 percent for a change of 1.1 percent. Could a theory be presented that accuses higher education institutions of price-gouging the American people? Price-gouging, in layman’s terms, occurs when the price of goods and/or services is raised beyond levels that are considered normal or fair. As Americans, we are familiar with this concept; for example, in 2016, the pharmaceutical giant, Valeant, was placed under SEC investigation for reasons including the crime of price-gouging. Valeant would force patients to pay astronomically high prices for life-saving medications. Valeant was providing life-saving medications to people in need, but doesn’t education do the same? Aren’t factors such as lifetime earnings, the nature of interactions with the criminal justice system, the likelihood of premature death and the propensity for civic inclusion based heavily on educational attainment? If so, is it possible for public educational institutions to commit offenses similar to that of Valeant or have we become numb to feeling such financial pinches and constraints?

Services provided by the government such as higher education are important in our everyday lives. In the words of the great philosopher, John Adams, “Government is instituted for the common good; for the protection, safety, prosperity, and happiness of the people; and not for profit, honor, or private interest of any one man, family, or class of men; therefore, the people alone have an incontestable, unalienable, and indefeasible right to institute government; and to reform, alter, or totally change the same, when their protection, safety, prosperity, and happiness require it.” Should public universities be allowed to raise tuition at levels higher than the rate of inflation? What if that means many administrators will be vulnerable to job loss and career changes? How much should a taxpaying American pay for access to their own institutions?

There are some tough questions administrators in higher education have to answer. For example, what led to the 15 percent growth in university executive, administrative and managerial offices during the recession despite the slashing of the budget and the raising of tuition on our families and friends (University Growth during Recession)? Has American higher education shifted focus from being a public institution to performing as a profit-generating machine? Has the profit-driving nature of our corporations and business sectors infiltrated the strategic plans of our educational institutions? That’s a hard question to answer now, but I am positive that soon, we all shall see.


Author: Mr. William Clements has is a Department Chair and Professor of Criminal Justice and an adjunct professor of psychology, at higher education institutions. He possesses a Bachelor of Science Degree in Justice Studies, a Master of Science Degree in Forensic Psychology, and he is currently an A.B.D. in Public Policy and Administration, completing the last two chapters of his dissertation. He has served in the field of public service for a total of 11 plus years and is a well-read enthusiast for topics of economics, politics, and most of all, public policy.

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The American Society for Public Administration is the largest and most prominent professional association for public administration. It is dedicated to advancing the art, science, teaching and practice of public and non-profit administration.

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