‘New Deal for Higher Education’ could restore public colleges and universities

The AFT and the American Association of University Professors launched a bold campaign Feb. 10, introducing “A New Deal for Higher Education.” The national effort calls for massive federal investment to make public colleges and universities more accessible to all students, and it lists, among other elements, free college, student debt relief, and sustainable workplaces for faculty, as the pathway forward. It also pays particular attention to inequity and access for Black, Indigenous and Latinx students.

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Activists joined AFT President Randi Weingarten, AAUP President Irene Mulvey, Rep. Ayanna Pressley (D-Mass.), Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and the Roosevelt Institute’s Suzanne Kahn at a panel discussion to lay out a vision of higher education as a public good and discuss a reimagined federal role for the sector under the Biden-Harris administration.

“After decades of counterproductive austerity, we stand at the precipice of a new era for higher education,” said Weingarten. “We know from experience that we can’t create a system that works for all if we don’t allow everyone to access it. We know we can’t have meaningful job security and voice if faculty and staff aren’t treated with dignity and respect. That’s why we need a New Deal for Higher Education.”

“A Band-Aid approach will only lead us back—to precarity and unsustainability, and a weakened educational sector,” said Mulvey, framing pandemic recovery as an opportunity to do better. “It’s time to go big. It’s time for this New Deal.”

The campaign’s website details how the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated the long-standing crisis in public higher education. Declining state support, the erosion of tenure and shared governance, the increased use of contingent appointments and the loss of the faculty voice are threatening the core mission of higher education in our society.

The New Deal for Higher Education centers on four main values:

  • Building prosperity from the bottom up.
  • Advancing social, racial and economic justice.
  • Strengthening democracy and civil society.
  • Fostering knowledge and innovation.

The platform re-centers public colleges and universities as a common good and addresses tuition costs, institutional funding and student debt relief. It spotlights reforms related to racial injustice and inequities, labor practices, academic freedom and governance, federal research funding, technical and vocational education, and a host of other challenges.

Advocates also acknowledge the role the pandemic has played in amplifying the need for bold change, and Weingarten described President Joe Biden’s relief proposal, the American Rescue Plan, as a crucial first step. “But our sights are set on more, too,” she said. “We want to cancel student debt and reimagine the Higher Education Act,” a piece of legislation that addresses myriad issues that would bolster public higher education for all.

Student debt must go

Student debt is one of the greatest obstacles to a fair and accessible system of higher education. As state funding for higher ed plummets, soaring tuition has forced 69 percent of students to take out college loans, a disproportionate number of them Black, Latinx and Indigenous. Families already living on the margins are “choosing between putting food on the table and paying a student loan bill,” said Rep. Pressley. Those who manage to enroll “are facing record levels of food insecurity and homelessness.”

“None of these injustices were naturally occurring,” she said. “They were codified into law. If we can legislate hurt and harm and inequity, we can reverse the hurt by legislating equity, healing and justice.”

Pressley introduced a resolution in the House of Representatives Feb. 4 urging Biden to cancel $50,000 in student debt for borrowers; it was backed by a large cohort of progressive Democrats. Sen. Warren and Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) reintroduced a similar resolution in the Senate, and the AFT, along with hundreds of other advocates, has signed a letter of support.

“We’ve got to get that done,” said Warren. “And once we’ve addressed the student debt that’s holding down an entire generation, we must ensure that we never have another student debt crisis again. We can do that by recognizing that a public college education is like a public K-12 education, a basic public good that should be available to everyone, with free tuition and zero debt at graduation.”

Funding real campus costs: Classes and learning

As students struggle to afford college, “austerity and sacrifice” continue to plague campuses, said Jennifer Mittelstadt, a history professor at Rutgers University and member of Rutgers AAUP-AFT. In addition to decreased state funding, university budgets are skewed “with spending on fancy stadiums and food courts” and bloated administrations that contrast with diminishing ranks among staff and faculty.

“When a university chooses fiscal austerity, it is used as a rationale to make cuts on staff,” said Christine O’Connell, president of the Union of Rutgers Administrators. Since the pandemic, Rutgers has laid off more than 1,000 employees, people who rely on Rutgers not only for their income and health insurance (during a pandemic), but also on the tuition remission that allows them to afford to send their children to college.

New hope for a New Deal

Although the New Deal for Higher Education takes its name from Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Depression-era relief effort, those who crafted it—including the Roosevelt Institute, which published this initial policy paper—are leading with the racial equity elements that were missing from that first powerful but flawed New Deal. Some progress has already been made in creating a more equitable higher education environment: Charles Toombs, president of the California Faculty Association, described how his union helped pass state legislation requiring ethnic studies for college graduation, and how the CFA’s contract includes support for the countless hours of mentoring Black and Latinx faculty members give their Black and Latinx students. Advocates hope this new New Deal will shift the paradigm toward more inclusive policies like these.

From Pressley, a Black woman who was the first in her family to attend college, to activist Antoinette Abeyta, one of just 250 Latinx people with a Ph.D. in earth sciences, every individual should have access to higher education. Abeyta’s great-grandmother was illiterate, she said; her grandmother dropped out of school to support her family, and her mother dropped out as well. But Abeyta was able to attend college in a field where fewer than 7 percent of all doctorates awarded go to Black, Indigenous and Latinx people. “I don’t want my story to be unique,” she said.

[Virginia Myers, AFT Communications]