The Road to Idiocracy
Paul Sutton is a professor in the Department of Geography and the Environment. He has taught at the University of Denver since 1999. Sutton's research focuses on applied issues associated with the human-environment-sustainability problematic. He has conducted a great deal of research with nighttime satellite imagery to map and estimate human population distribution, energy consumption, economic activity, urban extent, CO2 emissions and ecological footprints.
Our new Secretary of the Department of Education (Betsy DeVos) has raised awareness of the issues associated with the privatization of our schools. Unfortunately, the American public has been unaware that our public university systems have already become increasingly privatized — long before Ms. DeVos became a household name. The consequences of this trend are dire, affecting issues ranging from economic inequality and international competitiveness to environmental quality and public health.
In the 1970s, state governments provided almost 75 percent of the operating costs of public universities. Today, across the United States, student paid tuition covers roughly 25 percent of the operating costs of our universities while state governments provide only about 23 percent of these costs. Here in Colorado the state provides only 5.3 percent ($65 million) of CU Boulder's operating revenue. Sadly, this is almost matched by private donations to this flagship public university (4 percent of total — $47 million). This trend shrinks access to higher education to a wealthier subset of our citizens. It undermines both the idea and reality of fairness and meritocracy that have been a vital element of our national identity.
The erosion of meritocracy excludes some of our best and brightest citizens (who are poorer) from higher education, which in turn reduces our economic competitiveness and our civic and cultural vitality.
Today's neoliberal university treats students as "customers," which contributes to the problem of grade inflation. The population of students with sufficient resources to attend these universities is shrinking due to broad demographic trends. Consequently, universities are concerned about "retention" with the ultimate goal of graduating 100 percent of their incoming class. This focus on retention undermines the university's mission to hold rigorous academic standards because enforcement of standards results in a loss of paying customers. Student "attrition" brought about by high standards is actually healthy for the university system. Merit rather than money-based attrition insures that our degrees have value and that our college graduates are truly the product of a meritocracy rather than a plutocracy.
The civilizations that make honest efforts toward meritocracy are much more successful than those that do not. As a university professor, I see firsthand how grade inflation is a disservice to both society and those students who receive higher grades than they deserve. Currently, in the United States we are nowhere near number one in international comparisons of ability in mathematics, but we are number one in our confidence in our mathematical ability. The false impression of competence that grade inflation creates contributes to a precariousness of civilization characterized by ecological economist Herman Daly when he said, "We are always only one failed generational transfer of knowledge away from darkest ignorance."
The late great Yogi Berra wonderfully said, "College is only important if you don't go." A degree is still a smart investment for the individual in that their lifetime earnings will be higher than the time and money costs of attending university. However, the public invests in the university system to imbue our best and brightest with the knowledge, skills, and perspectives that will enable them to best serve society in public and private activities. As the neoliberal university replaces meritocracy with plutocracy the students are richer but the public becomes poorer.
The privatization of our public universities drives our universities to seek more and more private donations from alumni and corporate sponsors. The growing fraction of university operating expenses derived from private donations raises questions about the independence and integrity of scholarship at these institutions. Do we look forward to a Goldman Sachs department of Fiduciary Ethics? A Monsanto department of Food Science? Or a Volkswagen Department of Environmental Monitoring and Management?
Publicly-funded universities should not have to seek private donations to operate. Freedom from private funding allows public universities to provide an independent authoritative voice on a diverse range of important social, political, historical, technical, and scientific matters without fear of reprisal.
Since the end of World War II, our public university system has served us well and been the envy of much of the world because it has striven for meritocracy and contributed to the public good. Privatization threatens these achievements. Our public university system is at risk and we must change direction, which may not be likely given our new administration. If Betsy DeVos succeeds in advancing this privatization agenda, we will almost certainly see failed inter-generational transfers of knowledge, darkest ignorance, and avoidable human suffering as we evolve from meritocracy to plutocracy to idiocracy.