In this month that we celebrate our nation’s independence, it is time that we take stock. America’s promise always has been the ability of every citizen (and those who would become so) to pursue their God-given potential to the maximum extent possible. To that end, and as a foundational element of not only the Republican Party (and its predecessor, the long-forgotten Whigs), but of the West itself, public institutions of higher education were established.
In this publication, I have praised the Morrill Land-Grant Colleges Act of 1862 as one of the most long-sighted pieces of legislation ever produced by the Republican Party. Likewise, the GI Bill forever will redound to the credit of our brethren in the Democratic Party. The common thread was the recognition that in the Industrial Age, and even more so in a post-industrial age, education is the centerpiece of not only personal advancement, but national prosperity and, therefore, security.
Enough lofty sentiment — tuition hikes cause real pain in the present. How many middle-class parents, after seeing their savings wither in the Great Recession, now despair about affording college for their children? How many underprivileged strivers now will be saddled with unbearable debt upon graduation? A friend has referred to the student debt load faced by our generation as the anti-dowry of our age. I could not put it better.
The Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs, through its Center for Educational Freedom, has shown that it does not have to be this way. It has detailed how colleges and universities could cut costs, prioritize operations and course offerings, and put students’ interests first. But I want to focus on two other items of note. First, if higher tuition is needed, raise out-of-state tuition. That increase could be offset by raising scholarships for the best and brightest of out-of-state students so that we can reverse the brain drain.
Next, we must address the democratic deficit in higher education. Whether you wear crimson, orange or neither, these are our colleges and universities; that is why they are called “public.” Therefore, I call for the return of legislative authority to set tuition and fees. If legislators make a decision with which we disagree, we can vote them out. All we can do if the regents reject the ideal of social mobility and general learning is write columns for a local weekly newspaper.
On the other hand, there is a good argument that the term “public university” is an anachronism. Throughout the country, state support for these institutions has dwindled from comprising the vast majority of a given institution’s budget in the 1960s to a small minority now. Personally, I think that percentage should go back up. If you disagree, let’s fight it out in the electoral arena, not via unresponsive regents.
Reese is a lawyer in downtown Oklahoma City and a graduate of the University of Oklahoma.
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