Privatization Everywhere: Public Universities Want to Go Private

Categories: Education

Houston Press
Privatize It!
Privatization -- the other side of the deregulation coin -- has long been a favorite watchword among economic conservatives. Indeed, we can go back all the way to 1981, when President Reagan warned us that government was the problem, not the solution.

Thirty-plus years on, this rhetoric still has staying power. It seems like a number of well-known public universities want to get the government "off their back" and go private. For example, in Oregon, the University of Oregon, Oregon State University and Portland State University -- the three largest of the state's seven public colleges and universities -- will all be private schools as of next July.

This movement is not confined to Oregon. As Pacific Standard reports:

Across the country, a small but growing number of public universities are making similar pushes, looking to cut deals with state lawmakers that scale back direct oversight, often in return for less funding or for meeting certain performance targets. Over the past few years, schools in Texas, Virginia, and Florida have all gotten more flexibility to raise tuition. Other plans have recently been broached, though with less success, in Wisconsin, California, and Louisiana.

The reason why this is so is not too hard to figure out: as states have cut (and cut) funding for their public universities, public higher education inches toward the private university model: higher tuition costs, and more financial aid for those students the universities want to attract.

And who are those students? The ones that will boost a school's rankings and prestige. This of course means that more and more students from lower-income families will (are) being priced out of higher education. ProPublica has shown that, in a gross inversion, wealthier kids are sucking up the aid from colleges and universities, leaving the most financially needy in a bind.

Stop me if this all sounds familiar. Here again, the siren song of the Chicago School of Economics -- deregulation! free markets! the private sector is more efficient! -- rears its head with the same consequences. The Great Recession was in large part, if not solely, because of this economic vision.

But that is macro, privatization has micro effects as well. Remember the "Kids for Cash" scandal in Pennsylvania:

Between 2003 and 2008, two Pennsylvania judges accepted millions of dollars in kickbacks from a private juvenile detention facility in exchange for sending children -- girls and boys, some as young as 11 -- to jail.

We seem, though, to never learn. Oh, that was just a few bad apples. When the basic functions of government -- the penal system, education, etc. -- are turned over to private interests, the result is usually not more efficiency, but inequality and scandal.

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I do not pretend to know all the answers to the trend of state disinvestment in public higher education, but I can speak to what it would have looked like for me as a student had I attended college today (vs. 15 years ago).  I was an emancipating youth at 18 so as a freshman at UC Berkeley in the late 90's was worried, like other low income and foster youth students, about how i would be able to pay my way through school.  Fortunately, a combination of a tuition price tag of about $4800 a year, several jobs totaling about 30 hours of work a week, some scholarship money, and the generosity of faculty members and classmates, I made it through with only short breaks to save up money in between semesters.  At that time, the state contributed about 25% of the University of California Systemwide budget.  Less than 15 years later, that number is under 9%, and tuition has ballooned to more than 3 times what I paid as a low income student in the late 90's.  Bottom line, if I were a student in my circumstance today, I am certain I would have dropped out (or had to withdraw several times) due to financial constraints... YES the public universities are still cheaper than private schools, but all would have been out of reach for me.  I feel lucky and guilty for being born when I was.

whateveryousay topcommenter

Tell that to the kid with his Masters in Anthropology that gets my coffee.


private colleges don't guarantee you a job.


Your breathless lack of understanding of the history of higher education in this country is stunning. Try looking at who from the lower classes or the middle classes was attending universities in the 19th century,  or for that matter well into  the 20th. Look, for example, at who attended universities and how they paid for it prior to 1944 and the GI Bill and then how Johnson's Great Society vision and his 1965  Higher Education Act  fundamentally changed who could afford formal education in the U.S. Has this  improved university graduation rates overall? The mass of students who attend college today but never graduate runs into the millions and the debt they are now compelled to acquire just in order to attend  is staggering. Is this mirage of a level playing field begun over half a century ago  really the system you imagine so worthwhile?


Correction - UO, OSU, and PSU are not going private. They will be more autonomous, with independent boards rather than a single state board for the Oregon University System. The boards are appointed by the governor, and the institutions are still accountable to the state for performance, access, etc.

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