The COVID-19 pandemic has brought America’s public universities to the brink of collapse. I argued as much in my last column as a faculty opinion contributor for The Daily Princetonian, in which I introduced A New Deal for Higher Education, a plan to use federal dollars to reinvest in America’s public universities for the good of us all. In this column, as promised, I want to make a case for why Princeton’s students should be outspoken supporters of this plan, even though most of you, as Princeton students, won’t benefit directly.
Let me start by sharing my general impression of undergraduate life at Princeton. Since arriving on campus two summers ago, I’ve had some version of the following conversation with at least a dozen other faculty: someone asks me, “How’s teaching going this semester?” and I lean in, almost conspiratorially, and exclaim in hushed tones, “My students are so good. They do the reading! They come to class prepared! They care so much.”
I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about what makes Princeton students so special. There’s no question that most of you are smart and driven, but I’ve taught smart and driven students at other universities, too. There’s no question that Princeton faculty are excellent, but I’ve studied under excellent faculty at other universities, too.
The conclusion I’ve come to, after a good deal of thought, is that Princeton brings out the best in us. Though individually you are brilliant and your faculty are excellent at what they do, it’s the collective that matters. Collectively, Princeton’s culture encourages students to invest in, commit to, and engage with both their academics and with their campus community. Professors respond by investing in their students. This is a place where we are all committed to education for education’s sake.
That, as it turns out, is the key to a good college experience no matter which college you attend. In a 2018 study, researchers from Stanford University’s School of Graduate Education found that “students who benefit the most from college are those who are most engaged in their academics and campus communities, taking advantage of the opportunities and resources their particular institution provides.” The key takeaway from the report was that this kind of environment is possible at a variety of public and private universities, “regardless of size, location, or selectivity.” For high school students obsessed with admission to the “best” schools, the report has a clear message: stop worrying about college rankings and start paying attention to campus culture.
This all sounds great, and it’s a nice counterpoint to elitist discourses about Ivy League education, but the report stops short of defining exactly how it is that some schools — like Princeton — cultivate a culture of student engagement and others don’t. The report focuses on college selectivity rates and rankings as false determinants of student success, but it fails to address what is perhaps the most critical factor to fostering a culture of student engagement: funding. How can a college or university inspire its students to engage and invest in their “academics and campus communities” when no one else will?
At many of America’s public universities, that’s exactly the problem. Since 2001, state spending on public higher education has decreased from $9,500 per student (on average) to $7,600 per student. In New Jersey, allocations for higher education decreased from 8.51 percent of total state appropriations in 1990 to 6.33 percent in 2001 to a meager 4.44 percent of total state appropriations in 2017.
The contrast between Rutgers, New Jersey’s flagship public university, and Princeton, its neighbor down Highway 27, couldn’t be starker. Beginning in 2001, Princeton established a “no loan” policy, which, over the last two decades, has made a Princeton education available to more than 10,000 students who otherwise wouldn’t have been able to afford it. Meanwhile at Rutgers, accounting for inflation, in-state tuition rose more than 60 percent from $5,000 annually in 2001 to $12,230 in 2021, while reliance on student loans within financial aid packages actually increased.
Sky-rocketing tuition costs and the student debt crisis are the most obvious and talked-about effects of slashed investment in public higher education, but these are far from the only impacts on students’ collegiate experience. Cuts to state funding for higher education have also generated a total overhaul of university fiscal management policies.
Gone are the days when university departments were funded simply on the premise that education itself was a public good. Increasingly, administrators at public universities across the country — especially in states with Republican legislatures — have adopted “responsibility-centered management,” a market-based administrative structure which allocates funds to university departments according to their ability to generate revenue for the university. Now that the COVID-19 pandemic has decimated university finances, these market-based fiscal policies are forcing the closure of entire departments — most of them within the humanities or liberal arts — at state universities from Kansas to Alaska.
One particularly egregious round of cuts was announced in December by the University of Vermont, which plans to eliminate both the Classics and Religion departments and terminate majors in Latin, Greek, Romance Languages and Cultures, German, Russian, and Italian. Vermont students can now expect to shoulder higher tuition payments and greater student debt with fewer opportunities to immerse themselves in the literature of Homer or Dante or the philosophy of Kant or Arendt or any number of other texts that Princeton students can lay claim to thanks to their undergraduate education.
And, as Princeton students know all too well, who gets to lay claim to these texts matters. In my two years at Princeton, I’ve been fortunate to teach the first semester of the “Interdisciplinary Approaches to Western Culture” sequence. In both years, I’ve watched students from a variety of backgrounds grow confident in their ability to handle often-difficult ancient and medieval texts. I’ve listened as these same students, increasingly confident in their own critical abilities, claimed ownership over a “Western tradition” that they once imagined as exclusive or exclusionary. And with that sense of ownership came a recognition that they could push for change — that, because the texts of the western tradition are just as much theirs as anyone else’s, they can reshape the “Western tradition” to include the voices of women or people of color alongside the chorus of white men.
Crucially, these debates about the Western canon are only possible because of Princeton students’ engagement with their “academics and campus communities.” You don’t fight to change something unless you know that it matters.
And that, essentially, is why Princeton students should support A New Deal for Higher Education. Because students at the University of Vermont deserve the chance to claim the liberal arts tradition as theirs too; because broadening the “Western tradition” requires understanding that tradition in the first place; because Princeton students are passionate about justice, equity, and inclusivity. Because, perversely, while students at Princeton push against the perceived exclusivity of the liberal arts tradition as defined by those within elite eighteenth- and nineteenth-century institutions, that same liberal arts tradition is under threat of becoming exclusive, once again, to elite twenty-first-century institutions.
And finally, because even though a Princeton undergraduate education is unlike any other — even though this is the “best” school in the country — it’s possible for students across the country to feel as invested and engaged in their education as you do yours. But we have to start by investing in them first.
Melissa Reynolds is the Perkins-Cotsen Postdoctoral Fellow in the Society of Fellows in the Liberal Arts and Lecturer in the History Department and Humanities Council. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.