James Garland’s Saving Alma Mater: A Rescue Plan for America’s Public Universities is a great summation of everything that is currently wrong with American universities. While the intention of the book does not appear to be to provide a framework for how to destroy higher education, the text provides the playbook for any administrator who wants to justify the privatization of public universities. Garland’s main argument is that public institutions should wean themselves off of their dependence on state funds by raising tuition to whatever level the market will handle. In fact, when he was president of Miami University in Ohio, this is exactly what Garland did. In one year, he more than doubled tuition from $8,300 to $18,000 (xvii). Garland claims that the result of this experiment was that enrollments for first-generation students went up 40% and enrollments for minority students increased 25%. By using a high tuition, high aid model, this administrator argues universities can bring in more money and still attract underrepresented students.
Not only does Garland’s claims fly in the face of national statistics, but his own use of numbers is highly suspect. First of all, if the whole goal of raising tuition is to bring in more money so the university does not have to rely on unpredictable state funding, someone must be paying a lot more money. Moreover, if all of the students from Ohio are receiving some form of financial aid, it must be that out-of-state students are paying much more, so in-state students can pay less. Overall, this model reduces the number of in-state students and forces a reliance on wealthy out-of-state enrollments.
Of course, this is the model we have already seen with the University of Michigan and University of Viriginia, and it appears to be the model that the University of California is currently pursuing. As Peter Sacks has documented in his book, Tearing Down the Gates, in 1992, a third of University of Michigan (Ann Arbor) students were from lower-income families, but by 2002, only 13% were eligible for Pell grants. This precipitous loss of lower-income students also occurred at the flagship public universities of Virginia, Illinois, and Wisconsin. Between 1992 and 2002, the percentage of students receiving Pell grants at the University of Wisconsin at Madison went down 28%, while University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign went down 15%. Furthermore, after reducing its reliance on state funding by rapidly increasing its tuition, the University of Virginia saw its percentage of students eligible for Pell grants drop to just 8%.
Garland does not concentrate on this question of equity, and instead, he insists that the only way to keep universities solvent is to allow for the free market to balance supply and demand, and therefore universities should not rely on state subsidies to balance their books, and they also should not allow states to regulate their tuition. Here we see the neoliberal playbook in its purest form: the government should be eliminated so the free market can function in its pure state.
Garland attaches this need to break the relation between the public university and the state to global trends that no one can prevent. According to this common fatalistic logic, states will continue to reduce their funding for universities because they have lost their tax base due to the movement of jobs overseas (xi). Furthermore, since most of the costs for universities are fixed (tenure, healthcare, and building maintenance), the only thing a university can do is to either constantly raise tuition or lower the educational quality by replacing tenure-track faculty with part-timers and expanding class sizes, while neglecting the need for repairs and upkeep.
Of course, most universities have selected both strategies because for the last thirty years, we have seen a constant increase in tuition combined with a downsizing of the faculty. In fact, one of the giant holes in Garland’s book is he does not see how universities have simply shifted their funding structures by making undergraduate students pay for the constant increase in administration and research budgets. In other words, as the quality of undergraduate education has been downsized, the cost has gone up because the price of tuition is unrelated to the quality of education.
While Garland’s book is full of holes and contradictions, it is worthy of a read for one reason: it appears to be the training manual for university presidents like Mark Yudof. Virtually every claim and strategy discussed in this work has been recycled and re-presented by the UC president.