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The Fracturing of American Higher Education


Jonathan D. Glater is Associate Dean and Professor of Law at the University of California, Berkeley School of Law, and a co-founder of the University of California Student Loan Law Initiative.

Adriana N. Hardwicke is a third-year law student at the University of California, Berkeley School of Law.

This post is part of a series on the LPE of Higher Education.


The cultural controversies swirling around college and university campuses are often viewed through the lens of national politics — as part of a broader battle against “woke” ideas, a partisan realignment by education, or a generational shift. This focus, however, makes it is easy to miss one effect of diverging paths currently being taken by different institutions and state governments: the increasing impact of location on both the accessibility and the content of higher education. States have long varied in their funding of public universities, responsible for educating the vast majority of students, but geography increasingly also affects what can be taught, who can teach it, and whose learning is supported. The trend bodes ill for the possibility that higher education will contribute to the shaping of a common polity that can agree at least on terms of debate about the challenges the nation confronts, let alone on the best responses to them.

Battles over the content of the college curriculum are playing out in state legislatures in places like Florida, Tennessee, and Idaho, where Republican lawmakers have clearly stated their goal of changing the curriculum and the makeup of the faculty. New legislation in Texas led to the redesignation of a center supporting LGTBQ students at the University of Texas at Austin as a Women’s Community Center. (A LGTBQ student organization at Rice University, which is not public and so is not subject to the law, offered students at public institutions honorary membership.) News articles have reported, perhaps prematurely, on the possibility that members of the faculty in so-called red states with new legislation prohibiting “diversity, equity, and inclusion” may relocate to states regarded as more ideologically hospitable. While a dearth of reliable surveys of faculty makes it difficult to know what is really happening, let alone why, it does seem safe to predict that there will be more ideological sorting by students and faculty, as those who agree with anti-DEI efforts try to join colleges and universities they view as more welcoming and those who disagree do the same.

Most students, however, go to college close to where they live. The consequence of the curriculum wars in different states is that students may learn different versions of reality depending on where they reside.

Then there is the price of higher education. The average, published tuition and fees for a student attending a public, four-year institution here in California total $10,641, according to the College Board, while that figure is several thousand dollars higher in New Hampshire and Connecticut, and several thousand dollars lower in Montana and Florida. Those numbers do not reflect various forms of state-specific financial aid, like CalGrants in California, the Excelsior scholarship in New York, or the Hope Scholarship in Georgia. States themselves support public higher education to different degrees, with states like Washington, New Mexico, and California providing more than $9,000 in state support per student, while Mississippi, Ohio, and Arizona are among those that provide less than $6,000.

These differences in turn contribute to differences in average student debt burdens across the states. Changes in macroeconomic conditions in coming years will almost certainly exacerbate the differences, both because states’ finances differ and because legislative willingness to protect institutions of higher education will vary. Scholars who have studied the consequences of variability in state funding for accessibility of higher education have found that state support normally rises when tax revenues increase and fall when they decline, which tends to occur when the economy worsens – and, perversely, more people seek higher education in order to position themselves better for employment.

Changes in higher education policy occur against the backdrop of demographic changes: some states already are experiencing declines in enrollment as the population of traditional college-age students declines, and more will be affected in the coming decade. Falling enrollment will put more financial pressure on institutions, which will further affect both the accessibility and potentially the quality of higher education in those states.

The divergent prospects for higher education in different places is likely to have important knock-on effects down the road. More widespread education has several positive effects: it is associated with a higher income (and so higher tax revenue to the state), better health, lower levels of unemployment, lower likelihood of criminal conduct, greater political engagement, and various other, positive indicators. Those states whose residents achieve higher levels of education stand to reap those gains, which over the long run should make it easier to collect the revenue to support higher education going forward. Those states that see their college-educated population shrink may confront the challenge of supporting more precarious workers with lesser means to do so, creating pressure to allocate funds away from public universities to more urgent needs and undermining access to higher education going forward. In other words, differences in higher education policy contribute to feedback loops, positive and negative, that could prove durable.

These trends constitute a further balkanization of higher education, already marked by disparities along lines of race and class; the nation’s most selective institutions cater overwhelmingly to the wealthiest students. Splintering state colleges and universities along ideological fault lines will make it difficult to bring together students and faculty who hold different views to promote constructive dialogue and mutual respect, or at least tolerance. This is an idealistic vision, to be sure, one that we would fall short of achieving under any circumstances, but its abandonment signals further division and less hope.

The special role of education in general and higher education in particular is not a concern just within the academy. If people informed by and about the diverse experiences of their fellows will make better decisions about who should lead and what policies those leaders should pursue, then geographical divisions that promote disagreement over the facts that should inform our collective choices do not bode well. Indeed, politicians and jurists have long emphasized the important role that colleges and universities play both in informing students and in forming a national community capable of managing disagreement. In the words of Justice Brennan in a Supreme Court opinion defending academic freedom in a case decided more than half a century ago, “No one should underestimate the vital role in a democracy that is played by those who guide and train our youth.”