If You Believe in Meritocracy, Fund State Universities

04/10/2013 06:38 pm ET | Updated Jun 10, 2013

The Boston Globe published an article on March 31, 2013 about a professor at Harvard's Graduate School of Education named Todd Rose. Rose has a life story that isn't what one would expect for an Ivy League professor (Rose was a high school dropout with a 0.9 GPA) and his story is an interesting and inspiring one. But that life story isn't what caught my attention in the article. This statement did:

We're supposed to be the country of [virologist] Jonas Salk, right? Jonas Salk's parents immigrated, and he went to the City College of New York, which doesn't charge tuition. We made that bet as a public: If you went to school on the taxpayers' dime, you could succeed. And then Jonas Salk cured polio, and he gave that cure away. The impact of that one innovation changed the world. So for me it's about, if our cure for cancer is probably a Latina sitting in a classroom in Oakland, how do we take advantage of this opportunity right now to reimagine the medium of public education, so that it doesn't come down to everyone fighting for smaller and smaller numbers of spots at Ivy League schools?

That last sentence is particularly key. America's population has increased dramatically over recent decades and the amount of available spots at Ivy League or similarly selective private universities hasn't increased to keep pace. There aren't enough available spots at such schools for talented students. Moreover, as Rose suggests, the assumption that talented students should be clustered at handful of universities has pernicious effects and isn't in keeping with America's best academic and cultural traditions.

The United States has a great history of creating and funding public universities that provide educational opportunities and serve as a model for higher education around the world. Examples of this include the land-grant university system that originated in the 1800s and the Master Plan for Higher Education that California set up in 1960, both of which helped generate a tremendous amount of intellectual capital for this country.

If America is going to provide real meritocratic opportunity for intelligent and hard-working young people, it cannot merely focus on Ivy League universities or similar private institutions of higher education. Those institutions are wonderful places but there simply aren't enough of them to meet current and future needs. Also, the presupposition that America's intellectual leadership should be drawn primarily from a handful of schools is one that encourages a certain complacency coupled with elitism. That is not a good combination.

The problem that we face today is that at just the time public universities need support, budget cuts all over the country have removed support for those universities, even in states with a strong history of support for public universities, like California. Obviously, government budgets are tight. But state universities provide vast benefits for the general population, in terms of research for the public good, cultural amenities for their sponsoring states and the provision of opportunities for young people to develop their understanding of the world around them.

Furthermore, the removal of support for public higher education leads to higher tuition and by extension, increased student loan debt burdens for college students. While it can be argued that the current student loan system can lead to inflationary tuition pressures for the simple reason that if one provides unlimited financial subsidies for a particular good (namely, tuition earmarks), the price of that good will go up, it is harder to make that case when the use of funds isn't tied to individual students and provides a broader level of financial support. It's probably no accident that tuition has gone up for public universities as state support has gone down. If more state support led to higher tuition, one would think the reverse would occur.

It's time to reverse the trend of recent years and provide more support for public higher education. This will do more to provide opportunity for talented young people than tinkering with the admissions or financial aid policies of Ivy League and similar private universities. Let's not continue to undermine great institutions of higher education in a misguided attempt to cut a few line items from government budgets. America's public universities need to be funded as an investment in the future of this country.