The Science and Engineering Building at the University of California-Merced. Image credit: Coolcaesar/Wikimedia Commons

I teach writing at the University of California, Merced, in the heart of California’s San Joaquin Valley. Serving the citizens of California’s historically under-resourced and economically depressed Central Valley is a specific mission of the youngest and (in my completely biased opinion) loveliest university in the UC system. And the university is doing its job:  almost three out of four undergraduates at UCM, a Hispanic-Serving Institution, are first-generation college students, with about a third hailing from central California. 

Even as it educates students from all over the state and around the world, the presence of a UC here has a transformative impact on the economy and the cultural life of California’s heartland. Agriculture will doubtless remain the leading industry of my part of the state—and I’m glad for that. Nevertheless, a University of California campus has—wonderfully, miraculously—sprung up amid the tomato fields and almond orchards that skirt the foothills of the Sierras, helping to cultivate a professional class of locally-educated residents who won’t have to leave the region to establish their careers. 

Like most college students, the young people enrolled in my classes are already thinking about those careers and their lives after college: future jobs, bills, how they will be able to help their families financially. Many of them are also thinking about how they will be able to serve their communities, help make our society more just and equitable, or help avert ecological and environmental disaster. For residents of the San Joaquin Valley, these things are all intertwined.

But no matter what they hope to accomplish, the rising cost of a first-rate college education compels the least affluent students—often the most hopeful about what they can do with a college education to make the world a better place and the most interested in effecting change—to stop focusing on how they can give back to society. Instead, they must think only about how they can climb out of the financial hole that society has consigned them to for simply daring to increase their value—their own value to society!—as educated workers in a knowledge economy, never mind as agents for social change.

And “society,” broadly construed, has dug a financial hole for these students on purpose.

The increasingly unsustainable financial burden of higher education is not an unfortunate accident, nor is it a “fact of life” or a “natural consequence” of going to college. As human institutions go, public higher education is quite new, and—until very recently—it was largely free for students. That’s because, for decades, it was widely viewed as a public good: a service or institution so important and so clearly beneficial to the citizenry that it should be provided or operated at public expense. 

But since the late 1960s, conservatives have made a concerted effort to challenge the vision, and the reality, of advanced degrees that were practically free. And even in California, long a bellwether state for both progressive social policies and the transformative technological and industrial innovations that drive the knowledge economy in an interconnected world, the idea of higher education as a public good has vanished. 

The fact that an education at the University of California had once been tuition-free—indeed, that a majority of the voters of the state of California had long planned and provided for tuition-free state universities and colleges—was news to my students. David A. Love’s outstanding recent essay for “Made by History” in the Washington Post, which I assigned at the start of the semester, offered them a crash course in the history of skyrocketing tuition costs and student loan debt.

These were twin crises deliberately unleashed on aspiring college graduates by California conservatives seeking revenge against the student protest movements of the 1960s and insurance against such a phenomenon ever happening again. Love comes with the receipts to show that then-Governor Ronald Reagan, his apparatchiks, and his political heirs were open, explicit, and unabashed about imposing tuition costs (or, when they couldn’t do that for legislative reasons, higher “fees”) on California’s public college and university students as a way of curtailing political activism. 

Thus, California’s magnificent and world-renowned three-tiered system of public higher education—tuition-free community colleges open to all who could benefit from further education or vocational training, selective tuition-free state colleges whose primary public service was to train teachers and administrators to serve in California public schools, and highly selective tuition-free state universities that served the public good by advancing knowledge through original research and the training of researchers—was made less accessible. On purpose. California wasn’t even a decade into this “master plan” to maximize the benefits of free public higher education before the state’s conservatives succeeded in imposing higher and higher cost barriers for aspiring students.

Now many of the students with the most motivation to work towards a more equitable and just society feel the least liberty to do so. The cost of college is too great to justify the risk of pursuing any studies beyond narrow vocational training. As it turns out, by deliberately limiting the range of fields, ideas, and problems that college students feel confident in studying, conservatives have successfully diminished the value of a college degree on the job market.

Now that college students have been conditioned to think first about recouping the cost of their studies and have narrowed their intellectual ambitions accordingly, many employers have concluded that a college degree is not a necessary or perhaps even a useful marker of the skills that new hires need. Although the exigencies of the “post”-pandemic labor market seem to be driving this development, college students from non-affluent backgrounds who have been told all their lives that “employers want” a college-educated workforce are learning that this may no longer be true. Yet they are now saddled with a level of debt that earlier generations did not have to carry.

Of course, I would be quick to tell you—as I am quick to tell my own students—that a college education entails a lot more than acquiring an (ever-changing) array of job skills that employers say they want. This is particularly true at a research university, where the entire apparatus of the institution is geared toward discovering and disseminating new knowledge in service to society.

Undergraduate education is a part of that mission. College graduates carry into the world not only what they have learned but how they have learned. They convey to others how they have learned to learn, how to grapple with ideas and problems they have never encountered before, how to make vast amounts of new information coherent, and how to identify challenges and explore solutions as members of a community of inquiry. 

As members of society who have had the opportunity to develop such habits of mind through an increasingly sophisticated and demanding engagement with both foundational and field-transforming knowledge, the undergraduate alumni of research universities are themselves one of the most important “products” of such institutions. Their education is not attained in the service of “what employers want” but of what society may not even yet know that it will someday need. 

Because we cannot predict the problems of the future or know what resources and ideas will be needed to solve them, the public good is best served when as many capable students as possible pursue as much knowledge as is possible for them to obtain. Not everyone wants to go to school beyond high school, but everyone interested in and committed to learning beyond high school should have the opportunity to attend public colleges and universities entirely at the public expense. Why should we expect the generations who are inheriting all the problems we can see and all the trouble currently beyond the horizon of our vision to pay for the chance to help solve them? 

That very expectation—that even public college should cost, that students should sacrifice their current and much of their future financial security for a shot at learning—may account for a good deal of our trouble in the first place.

Lora Burnett is a writer, historian, and college writing professor at University of California, Merced.

This post originally appeared on Claire Bond Potter’s Substack, Political Junkie. Potter is a Professor of Historical Studies at The New School for Social Research and co-Executive Editor of Public Seminar. Her most recent book is Political Junkies: From Talk Radio to Twitter, How Alternative Media Hooked Us on Politics and Broke Our Democracy (Basic Books, 2020).