While Dr. Folbre was delivering her lecture, employees at the University of Illinois received an email, one in a series of recent emails, explaining the impact of the Illinois' budget "crisis" on the health insurance plans of many state employees. The short story is that the lack of an approved budget means the state can't pay claims, potentially requiring some state workers to pay for medical care up front. This particular situation was surely on the minds of many as Folbre discussed the political economy of higher education in the United States.
The substance of Dr. Folbre's talk could be expected, in many regards. As an academic economist, she summarized and interpreted changing political and economic conditions in relation to public higher education, beginning with a cost-benefit analysis. She then proceeded with a very brief summary of the historical trajectory of public universities and colleges. From the Morrill Land Grant Acts of the mid 19th Century to the post-WWII GI Bill to the overlapping conditions of industrial globalization, privatization, and union busting that define neoliberalism, Folbre told a story that ends with a largely defunded state university system. Her story was punctuated with descriptions of a political culture that has come to see higher education as, simultaneously, a means for individual advancement, yet also as an institution that isn't worthy of public support. In understanding this history and political economy of higher education, Folbre's analysis leads her to question the assumptions that are driving public policy and to adopt the position of an advocate, calling for the audience to "fight for more resources for the public good."
The history and statistics provided—facts, such as those that describe rising income inequality in the US—give us (those of us who agree with Folbre's analysis and conclusions) ammunition to rationally argue for a number of policies that could reverse rising tuition, student debt and unemployment. What it doesn't necessarily give us is the means to confront the sub-rational and explicitly ideological conditions that arguably underlie the policies of our recent past, and current moment, that got us here. Perhaps, I'm being overly pessimistic and dramatic, but the shutdown of the democratic state (by way of a budgetary impasse) seems to be more than a means to an end for conservative ideologues—it's starting to look like the intended outcome.
I was reminded of the recent reporting of Nikole Hannah-Jones on school segregation. In her work on the subject, Hannah-Jones has interviewed numerous experts, officials, parents and students on disparities of outcomes between schools where the student demographics are predominantly white and those that are overwhelmingly students of color. Just as Dr. Folbre described some of the political economy underlying the current state of higher education, Hannah-Jones summarized the wholesale dismantling of school desegregation programs and the subsequent (and expected) re-segregation of our nation's public schools. The experience of students varies widely depending on the school attended, which is overwhelmingly dependent on their race and economic class as the schools available to students are regulated by spatial segregation. All manner of solutions have been attempted—increasing access to technology, creating magnet and charter schools, incentivizing better teachers—all with mixed results. As Hannah-Jones argues, there is a solution known to have a dramatically positive impact—desegregation. That solution, as she also points out, has apparently been ruled all but impossible by those directing our nation's educational policies.
My take away from Dr. Folbre's lecture is that I will certainly follow her call to "fight for more resources for the public good" and hope my colleagues and fellow community members will join as well. The struggle against segregation also suggests that we should be fighting (still) to expand the composition of the public who can then demand the good.
Link to Hannah-Jones (and others) reporting on ProPublica: http://www.propublica.org/series/segregation-now