Public higher education in the United States dates almost to the founding of the country. The first public university was chartered in Georgia in 1785. Since then, every state in the union has built a network of public colleges. Many states have established robust student-aid programs for their residents, and some states even provide money directly to private colleges. In other words, states have long been in the business of higher education.
But never before has the relationship between the two been more strained than now. Largely because of anemic tax collections, state budgets are under lots of pressures, and the usual expenditure to slash is higher education.
Public flagships, in particular, are getting less than ever from their state coffers. In Wisconsin, where the governor stripped collective-bargaining rights from faculty members this year, the percentage of revenue at the flagship Madison campus coming from the state is just 18 percent, down from 24 percent less than a decade ago. And 18 percent is healthy, compared with other states, like Oregon, where the flagship gets only 10 percent from lawmakers.
But fewer dollars to colleges and financial-aid programs doesn’t mean that legislators are taking a hands-off approach to higher education, college officials complain. As The Chronicle’s Eric Kelderman noted recently, lawmakers have not been shy this spring about introducing bills to curb what they see as “commonplace excesses of faculty employment: six-figure salaries, light teaching loads, frequent sabbaticals on faraway islands.”
Then there’s Texas, where faculty productivity is under the microscope as public universities try to defend why some of their professors spend so little time in the classroom.
So why, after 200-plus years, has the relationship between higher education and state lawmakers soured so much? One reason is often cited by college presidents and other higher-education officials who visit The Chronicle’s offices: State lawmakers just don’t understand higher education. The college officials tell us that, in some cases, lawmakers didn’t go to college at all. Or they went to a private college (or a public one, if it’s someone from a private complaining). Or they went to college out of state. Or they went to the rival institution across the state.
So earlier this year, The Chronicle decided to see if that narrative was true by analyzing the education level of 7,000-plus state lawmakers across the country. We published the results of this ambitious effort today.
The short answer is that we didn’t find what so many in higher education say is true about their legislatures. Yes, while it is true that a large number of state lawmakers have no record of a college education, nearly every legislature is much more educated than their state populations as a whole. And we found that just because a state’s legislature is highly educated doesn’t mean that colleges in that state get more money. Indeed, there is no correlation between the two. There’s also no direct relationship, in most cases, between appropriations to specific colleges and where the vast majority of that state’s lawmakers attended college.
So why does it matter if a lawmaker even went to college? Does someone need to have gone to college to appreciate the value of one? Given that enrollment in college continues to climb, and only about a quarter of adults today have bachelor’s degrees, there are plenty of students on campuses or graduates with a parent or two who didn’t go to college (count me among that group). Obviously those parents without a degree understand what a college education might provide their children.
I doubt our project will change the minds of a few college officials and faculty members who seem convinced that anyone not like them doesn’t support their cause. Perhaps the reason for the strained relations on both sides is the large ideological divide that seems to stretch between the two groups. Those from colleges think legislators are anti-intellectual. Lawmakers think those at colleges are elitist and not living in the real world.
One side has to change the narrative at some point. Now, armed with data from this project, maybe college officials could start by ceasing to blame their problems on the education level of their state lawmakers.