In 1947 the historic Truman Commission called for national investments in higher education to promote democracy by enabling all people to earn college degrees. Subsequent expansion of community colleges, adult education, and federal aid occurred not in the name of economic stimulation but to reduce inequality and further active citizenship.

Those ambitions have been steadily corrupted. Today the Tea Party casts the college-educated as snobbish and fundamentally disconnected. Many four-year colleges and universities reinforce that perception by focusing on rankings and alumni satisfaction rather than affordability and national service. Educators speak about business objectives, maximizing revenue through models that charge high tuition and give high aid to needy students, and using a meritocracy narrative that denies the strong role played by a family's ability to pay. The results are stark: Among high-achieving students, just 44 percent of those whose families are in the bottom 25 percent of annual income attend college, compared with 80 percent of those whose families are in the top 25 percent.

In this new world, market-based solutions increase inequality by design. As David F. Labaree documented in

Someone Has to Fail, credentialing has replaced learning, and as a result, many students are derided for being what the authors Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa dismiss as Academically Adrift.

The current model ensures that private returns in the form of high-paying jobs accrue only to some, and it justifies minimal public investment in education.

Corporations act as gatekeepers, insisting that only degrees from elite colleges matter, while refusing to pay higher taxes to adequately support public higher education. It is to their advantage: They benefit financially from the for-profit colleges that are filling a void they helped create. The reality is cruel: Many families now dream the same college dream families always have, but run in place in their efforts to achieve it. Heavy debt even drags some backwards.

Colleges and universities vigorously participate in this process. As they lose state support, public flagships turn inward rather than to their communities, focusing on the self-preservation and pursuit of prestige that led them astray. Private universities help their public counterparts fail by promoting idealistic standards of "quality" and practices (such as offering grants rather than loans) that the public institutions simply can't afford. Too many leaders of public universities make common cause with elite private colleges rather than with their public brethren.

Underneath it all resides a fear-driven backlash against educational and economic opportunities for people of color and the working class. Since the civil-rights movement, and especially during President Ronald Reagan's tenure, a focus on private rights and personal responsibilities has replaced concern for social welfare. Remarkably, Reagan convinced the nation that individuals should pay to achieve the American dream. No president since has managed to combat that narrative. In today's focus on paying for performance and metrics, we hear echoes of President Bill Clinton's efforts to reform welfare by telling poor mothers to work for it.

Such rhetoric is fundamentally un-American. As John Dewey reminded us, sustaining democracy requires that we collectively provide for all children what we want for our own children. Anything else simply isn't fair. The politics of austerity have resulted in a paucity of active citizens pursuing democratic ideals by maintaining and expanding public investments. In that climate, New York State stands out for bucking the trend and promoting public higher education with limited reliance on tuition. So, too, do the university presidents urging President Obama to put into effect maintenance-of-effort requirements—requiring states to finance public colleges at a minimum level—to renew the social compact on which our great higher-education system was built. They are bravely rejecting the claim that private markets hold the key to great public needs. In doing so, those leaders may help bring the country back together.

Sara Goldrick-Rab is an associate professor of educational-policy studies and sociology at the University of Wisconsin at Madison.