There was a time not so long ago when elite public institutions, such as the University of California (Berkeley), the University of Michigan, and the University of Wisconsin, more than held their own against competition from Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Stanford, and other elite private institutions.Read through, and you see that the tussle over whether there are marginal positive nonpecuniary externalities to higher education, or not, goes on. The essay is a reaction to a recent Christopher Newfield book on the quasi-privatization of the state universities, and the regressive transfer that might be inherent in subsidizing people who have a better chance of getting rich doesn't appear to come up.
But there's another look at the way the end of generous state appropriations came about.
Many Americans for various reasons seem to long for the glory days of the 1950s and 1960s when, they believe, life was easier than today, families were more stable, good jobs more plentiful, and America was making steady progress year by year. Some on the right look back to that era with nostalgia for the conservative social values that prevailed, while others on the left would like to recover the good manufacturing jobs and strong labor unions that were then influential in the economic life of the nation.Put another way, the generous state university support during the American High was another manifestation of the victory dividend resource curse. But higher education, generally, didn't help its cause in allying too closely with movements dedicated to deconstructing both the social values and the economic model. The attitudes are similar these days.
It seems that Newfield is of a similar mind about that era, except that he would like to restore the public confidence and financial support that public universities enjoyed during that period. As with those other longings, Newfield’s is unrealistic and no longer attainable. We have moved on, and we are not going back.
In the first place, that period (from roughly 1950 to 1966) was a unique era in American life. The United States enjoyed rapid economic growth of between 4 and 6 percent per year, or something close to two or three times the rates of growth we have experienced over the past two decades. Economic growth and progressive taxes swelled the coffers of state and federal governments. The “baby boom” created large families with parents and grandparents willing to invest in children and their education.
When colleges and universities are mentioned in the press today, the story is likely about a speaker who has been harassed or disinvited from campus, or students demonstrating for “safe spaces” on campus to insulate themselves from discordant opinions, or for more courses and programs on women, minority groups, the environment, and other causes associated with the political left. Judging by the statements of many faculty, administrators, and student representatives, they would like to criminalize or at least delegitimize the opinions of conservative and religious Americans, and in the process make certain that those views are never expressed on the campus.Such excellent strategies for winning skeptics over to your side.