Government supported higher education in the United States evolved from sponsoring knowledge in the public interest, from what was once the provenance of a select few based on inherited privilege, to a democratic expansion of access based on merit. In the process by the mid 20th century until our present, public higher education provided pillars supporting social stability after the political turbulence of the first half of the 20th century (e.g., fascism and Stalinism). Additionally, it was the foundation for research and workforce training requirements of an increasingly complex post-World War II economy. Meanwhile, it recycled money through our economy sustaining consumer demand and business growth. The present erosion of support for public higher education, therefore has troubling implications for maintaining social cohesion; social mobility; the research and training required to respond to national security challenges (e.g., infrastructure to manage crises, such as with Covid-19); sustaining economic demand; and keeping the United States competitive in the global economy.
Combine these structural needs with an economy that in March and April lost 25% of its jobs as 36 million Americans filed for unemployment, the imperative to support public higher education is urgent. Public higher education is one of the nation’s largest sources of employment. And, the Covid-19 crisis unemployed could productively spend their time acquiring skills preparing to re-enter the workforce when the economy enters a recovery phase. Moreover, the substantial size of the US economy comprised of brick and mortar retail, restaurants, cafes and bars, will not recover soon, and barring the development of effective Covid-19 vaccines, may never fully rebound. This gives further impetus to maintain and expand other sectors of the economy, such as with public higher education. And, lastly, given the social turbulence already observed (e.g., military assault weapon wielding protestors at Midwestern state capitol buildings) early on in this public health crisis, public higher education should expand, not shed, their equity of humanities offerings that help young people understand society and how badly events can unfold if it unravels.
In this policy brief, four prominent scholars address how public colleges and universities, after decades of underfunding, can cope with projected budget shortfalls brought on by the pandemic.
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