06/14/2012 11:06 am ET Updated Aug 14, 2012

They're Paving Paradise

The old Joni Mitchell line, "You don't know what you've got till it's gone" applies to public higher education these days. Most states have dramatically cut financial support of their research universities over the last several decades to the point where public funding, as a percentage of most university budgets, is now in the single or low double digits.

When told this, many members of the general public express an understandable surprise. Most state residents still assume that their state governments remain a major -- if not the major funder of their state universities. But public funding has become such a small part of most state universities' revenue that it amounts to less than what either tuition or funded research bring into these institutions. As some observers like to say, the public research universities are now state located and state named, but hardly state supported.

This reflects a shift in thinking about public higher education, especially among those on the political right. What we once saw as a common good has become viewed as a private benefit. While that shift rarely gets discussed, debated, or even acknowledged in many political circles, it has driven a rapid and almost continuous decline in state support for most public universities, with the assumption that if individual students reap the financial rewards of their college education over their lifetime, they should pay more for it in the form of higher tuition.

The decline in state support rests on other suspect assumptions as well. Some cash-strapped legislatures argue that universities have other sources of revenue to compensate for the cut in public funds, even though those other sources have a limited capacity to absorb increases, in the case of tuition, or represent an unpredictable and often quite variable revenue stream, in the case of funded research. Some legislators also argue that taxpayers should not subsidize well-off students who have the ability to pay more, even though that leaves the majority of middle-class kids in a bind, too well-off for needs-based scholarships and yet not well-off enough to pay the ever-rising tuition.

Such rationalizations for cutting government spending on public universities overlook something especially important. These institutions do not just educate students and conduct research. Most of them -- particularly the large, land-grant universities in each state -- do an extraordinary amount of public service and outreach in exchange for the state and federal funding they receive. Working mostly in less-affluent communities, public universities provide services that are often not affordable or even available in the private market.

While cuts in state support to universities have had the highly visible result of causing tuition -- and student indebtedness -- to rise rapidly, even more dire consequences may come from the much-less-visible reduction in the ability of universities to help people in need. As our economy becomes ever-more dependent on innovation to spur new growth, the diminished capability of universities to help communities maximize the potential of their youth and create opportunities for their entrepreneurs represents a tremendous loss, likely much greater than the money that states think they have saved by cutting their support of higher education.

Another negative economic impact of state cuts to universities involves the private sector. While a lot of the funded research at universities depends upon government support, much of this work greatly benefits businesses, large and small, through the creation of new technology, the generation of added jobs, and the production of increased profits. As governments cut back on their support of universities and with it, the ability of these institutions to support students, it diminishes the ability of our best and brightest to help our economy and our communities thrive.

In part because most people and most companies remain largely unaware of the drastic declines in state support of public universities, the natural constituents of these institutions have done relatively little to advocate for increased public support of universities or increased government spending on research. And while alumni and donors continue to make generous gifts to these institutions, these nowhere near compensate for the size of the cuts that most states have made. If the public wants to have affordable higher education and the private sector wants to maintain a flow of skilled graduates and profitable innovations, they need to speak up for the greater good that public universities represent and step up the level of private support to defray the government's cuts.

The land-grant public research universities arose with the Morrill Act 150 years ago, and generations of investments by Republicans, Democrats, and Independents alike have created some of the best institutions of their kind in the world. And yet politicians, especially on the Republican side, seem determined to undo all of that in a couple of generations. And once undone, there is no going back: once the great public universities go "private," with so little public funding that they have become essentially indistinguishable from their elite private peers, states will never have the money or the political will to replace them.

Which brings us back to the Joni Mitchell lyric. We have begun to pave over the vast amount of investment already made in the public research institutions and quickly destroy what our ancestors worked for well over a century to create. And we likely won't know what we've got -- or what we've lost -- till it's gone.

Thomas Fisher is Dean of the College of Design at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis/St. Paul.