03/19/2013 11:24 am ET Updated May 19, 2013

Heaven or Hell?

A recent New York Times article made me think about Samuel Johnson and George Orwell. And Dante.

In Johnson's Rasselas, the prince lives in a utopian valley. In Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four, Winston lives in a terrifying futuristic London.

Dante presents both extremes: the Inferno is the ultimate nightmare, Paradiso the perfect dream.
In general, fictional dystopias are more entertaining than flawless worlds. Rasselas is interesting only when the prince leaves his Happy Valley. Nineteen Eighty-Four remains riveting throughout.

In the circles of Hell, villains are encased in ice, gnawed on by Satan, and buried in human excrement. Cool! The virtuous characters in Paradise don't provide the same reader gratification.

That brings me, in a roundabout way, to last week's Times article. The article points out that most qualified low-income students don't even think about applying to elite colleges. Moreover, "the colleges that most low-income students attend have fewer resources and lower graduation rates than selective colleges, and many students who attend a local college do not graduate."

These statements aren't surprising. Those of us in public higher education are intimately aware of our students' situations. After all, we educate the vast majority of university students in this country. And, as universities' mandatory expenses escalate and state funding diminishes, tuition rises and our students take on more debt. Unsurprisingly, they're continually tempted to drop out--or they never even apply to college.

I didn't become a university president just through hard work. My private high school prepared me well for college; my parents valued education and could afford Ivy League tuition.

At the same time, I grew up right in Washington, D.C., a city with some of the most under-performing schools in the country. And, when I was growing up, there weren't any public universities in the District. For thousands of kids my age living in D.C., attending a university wasn't an option.

In the 1960's and 1970's, opportunities expanded significantly. Huge efforts were made to expand higher education. Community colleges proliferated. Teachers' colleges and branch campuses became full universities. New campuses were built. Admission policies changed. Financial aid packages changed. States (and even Washington, D.C.) invested in higher education. Public school kids learned that college was within their reach.

The U.S., in fact, began to realize a utopian vision of higher education.

Public universities lay at the heart of that vision. One can argue that the tremendous financial success of the late 20th century was due in large part to public universities providing affordable education to Americans and to thousands of students from all over the world.

But now that vision is crumbling. High costs, decreased state support, and lack of will at state and federal levels are taking us back in time. Sequestration, we learned last week, would eliminate tuition support for university students serving in the Army and Marines. Federal work study and support programs for low-income students are imperiled. Small state universities struggle for survival.

What will an American dystopia look like if current trends continue? Imagine college-going rates dropping to those of the 1940's. Imagine residential universities becoming options only for the top two percent. Imagine talented American students turning to more affordable universities in Asia and Europe. Imagine U.S. companies relying on Americans for low-wage jobs while they import educated professionals from overseas.

Fictional dystopias are more interesting than perfect worlds. However, in real life, most of us would choose to live in Johnson's happy but slightly boring valley over Orwell's dystopian London.

In the real world, we should be working toward a society that is much more like Paradise and not at all like Hell.