Meeting in private
Historically North Dakota has lagged the rest of the country in its funding for higher education, with only a few years of exception. What's more, the trend toward reducing funding for higher education extends across the country. Most publicly-funded universities are scrambling, with students inevitably getting hit in the billfold.

Where will it all end? History may help us understand, if not exactly predict. Originally this country's universities, and most schools as well, were privately-owned, commonly supported by religious institutions. This traces an influence back to the medieval universities such as Oxford and Cambridge, formed by monks teaching theology and canon (church) law, and perhaps medicine. That was all you needed to know to be educated in, oh, 1400.

But come the modernizing revolution of the last century, the new democracies realized education was the key to stability and capitalistic success-a voter ignorant as a cow was not likely to make good choices, or work well in factories either. Unfortunately, private schooling was expensive and exclusive, beyond the means of most people. So governments in Europe and the United States established public schools, tax-supported. You had to go-because if people weren't forced by compulsory attendance laws, it was discovered, a lot of people would skip school to work. School wasn't that necessary to getting a job then, as people depended on brawn or a professional apprentice system.

Universities such as NDSU rode the trend toward state-run institutions established to serve state residents in a variety of educational ways. Enrollment remained fairly low, only a few hundred, but that changed after World War II for a couple reasons. One, some three million soldiers returned from the big war with a federal promise of free higher education, the G.I. Bill. This offer was extended to Korean War vets, and Vietnam War vets, and in fact, you can still get your education paid for today if you're willing to learn how to shoot for Uncle Sam. This generous, taxpayer-funded program was hugely successful, and all universities burst at the seams with new students. Secondly, it was more and more clear to young people that education was the key to a decent career. This trend has accelerated in the last quarter century or so, and now, as most everyone knows, if you want a decent career your smartest move is to get a college degree, maybe two.

Until perhaps the early 1980s, lawmakers had generally agreed on the old reasoning that because education improved society, society ought to support it. I remember, as an undergraduate at Moorhead State University in the late '70s, the beginning of a new ideal-that benefits of higher education go mostly to the student, so the student should pay for it. Tuition raises really began in earnest then, as Minnesota and many other state legislatures shifted more of the burden from taxes to tuition. Doubling and tripling of tuition was the norm over the next decade or so.

This idea that students ought to buy education like they buy a used car in the marketplace seems to have been coupled with an anti-government swing of the pendulum which certainly began during Reagan's administration but has really struck more broadly since the 1994 election. As higher education gives most states one of its most expensive bills, universities offer an unmissable target for the cleaver. Combine this with a distinct disintegration of respect for most big government-financed institutions, and you have a recipe for the statistics above.

Swing of the pendulum. Or is it a real shift of American ideology after perhaps 150 years? NDSU president Thomas Plough says we'd better prepare for a new ideal. He predicts that during the next 100 years many publicly-funded universities will become private.
That prediction certainly can be bought with evidence. At NDSU, for instance, 65 percent of the budget now comes from private sources. If states continue to reduce funding, it's easy to see what will happen: tuition will go up, private money will be sought, and at some point, it's possible state universities won't need the state anymore.

We'll come full circle, to an educational system early Americans would recognize. And along with it, all the good and the bad of that system: lower taxes, but elite universities open mostly to those with family money or good scholarship possibilities. To get an idea of who will go to college, just look at today's private college student.

Is this what America wants? Political evidence of the last 15 or so years seems to say yes. But a decade and a half is a short time in historical terms. Still, we might be thankful 20 years down the road that we got our college educations today when it was still feasible.

Copyright 2004 by Ross F. Collins <>