Why Princeton students should support #ANewDeal4HigherEd

The COVID-19 pandemic has brought America’s public universities to the brink of collapse. I argued as much in my last column as a faculty opinion contributor for The Daily Princetonian, in which I introduced A New Deal for Higher Education, a plan to use federal dollars to reinvest in America’s public universities for the good of us all. In this column, as promised, I want to make a case for why Princeton’s students should be outspoken supporters of this plan, even though most of you, as Princeton students, won’t benefit directly.

Let me start by sharing my general impression of undergraduate life at Princeton. Since arriving on campus two summers ago, I’ve had some version of the following conversation with at least a dozen other faculty: someone asks me, “How’s teaching going this semester?” and I lean in, almost conspiratorially, and exclaim in hushed tones, “My students are so good. They do the reading! They come to class prepared! They care so much.” 

I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about what makes Princeton students so special. There’s no question that most of you are smart and driven, but I’ve taught smart and driven students at other universities, too. There’s no question that Princeton faculty are excellent, but I’ve studied under excellent faculty at other universities, too. 

The conclusion I’ve come to, after a good deal of thought, is that Princeton brings out the best in us. Though individually you are brilliant and your faculty are excellent at what they do, it’s the collective that matters. Collectively, Princeton’s culture encourages students to invest in, commit to, and engage with both their academics and with their campus community. Professors respond by investing in their students. This is a place where we are all committed to education for education’s sake.

That, as it turns out, is the key to a good college experience no matter which college you attend. In a 2018 study, researchers from Stanford University’s School of Graduate Education found that “students who benefit the most from college are those who are most engaged in their academics and campus communities, taking advantage of the opportunities and resources their particular institution provides.” The key takeaway from the report was that this kind of environment is possible at a variety of public and private universities, “regardless of size, location, or selectivity.” For high school students obsessed with admission to the “best” schools, the report has a clear message: stop worrying about college rankings and start paying attention to campus culture.

This all sounds great, and it’s a nice counterpoint to elitist discourses about Ivy League education, but the report stops short of defining exactly how it is that some schools — like Princeton — cultivate a culture of student engagement and others don’t. The report focuses on college selectivity rates and rankings as false determinants of student success, but it fails to address what is perhaps the most critical factor to fostering a culture of student engagement: funding. How can a college or university inspire its students to engage and invest in their “academics and campus communities” when no one else will? 

At many of America’s public universities, that’s exactly the problem. Since 2001, state spending on public higher education has decreased from $9,500 per student (on average) to $7,600 per student. In New Jersey, allocations for higher education decreased from 8.51 percent of total state appropriations in 1990 to 6.33 percent in 2001 to a meager 4.44 percent of total state appropriations in 2017. 

The contrast between Rutgers, New Jersey’s flagship public university, and Princeton, its neighbor down Highway 27, couldn’t be starker. Beginning in 2001, Princeton established a “no loan” policy, which, over the last two decades, has made a Princeton education available to more than 10,000 students who otherwise wouldn’t have been able to afford it. Meanwhile at Rutgers, accounting for inflation, in-state tuition rose more than 60 percent from $5,000 annually in 2001 to $12,230 in 2021, while reliance on student loans within financial aid packages actually increased.

Sky-rocketing tuition costs and the…

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