The Second Time As Tragedy

By On

[Our guest writer is Dr. Bill Lyne, Professor of English (American and African American Literature) at Western Washington University who writes a blog for the United Faculty of Washington State which represents all faculty at Central Washington University, Eastern Washington University, Western Washington University, and The Evergreen State College. The article below is reprinted in its entirety from that blog with permission from Dr. Lyne.]

This time it’s going to be much worse.

From 2008 to 2012, during the recession that now seems more quaint than great, the state slashed appropriations to public higher education. This only accelerated a process of privatization. Following a trend that had been consistent since at least the early 1980s, state universities raised tuition between 60% and 80% over four years and went on their merry way. Overall university budgets were actually affected very little, but the cost of public higher education was shifted more and more to students and their families.

This time, the full bill for a house-of-cards public higher ed funding scheme will be coming due. Funding for public universities comes in three buckets—state appropriations, tuition, and self-supporting auxiliaries like dorms and dining halls. All three of those buckets are about to become dumpster fires.

The need to shut down the economy has shriveled state tax receipts and whenever the inevitable legislative special session comes, the temptation to make deep cuts to universities will be great.

Raising tuition, even if we were willing to overlook the ethical problem of making public education more expensive when people are losing their jobs in droves, is not an option. In fact, universities will be lucky to convince students to pay the current price. The COVID-19 pandemic has driven all education temporarily online. Teachers and professors all over the state have worked heroically to move their courses on a dime to Zoom and Canvas. And, while those courses continue to be high quality, our students have discovered what faculty have known all along—online college isn’t as good as real college. With all due respect to the bankers and quasi-non-profit evangelists who have spent millions trying to convince us that the future of education is people in their pajamas in front of a computer screen, our students aren’t buying what you’re selling. Polls are showing that if we’re still mostly online in the fall (and the stubborn science suggests we’re going to be), up to 20 percent of our students won’t return. With half of university budgets coming from tuition, this drop in enrollment will have a huge impact.

If all that isn’t bad enough, public universities are also facing a third financial crisis they haven’t faced before. When the pandemic hit, we sent our students home with housing and meal plan refunds in their pockets. The state provides no funding for student housing, so both the building and operating of residence halls have to pay for themselves. Dorms are built with debt—Washington’s six public universities have billions of dollars in bonds. Empty dorms and dining halls mean no revenue to pay hundreds of millions of dollars in interest and the bond market doesn’t like to wait for its money.

So this time is shaping up to be a perfect financial storm for public universities, both in Washington and across the country. Some won’t survive and many of those that do will emerge as hollow shells of what they should be. Here on the eve of that destruction, we should pause to reflect on what we could be losing.

Ronald Reagan, when he was governor of California, was one of the first instigators of the defunding of public higher education, arguing that the state should not “subsidize intellectual curiosity.” As the events of the last couple of weeks have reminded us, he couldn’t have been more wrong.

From the 1920s to near the end of the 1970s, state and federal governments invested massively in the public higher education they’ve allowed to crumble over the last 40 years. The gray-haired among us can still remember a time when regular people could pay nominal fees to go to school in Bellingham, Cheney, Ellensburg, Olympia, Pullman or Seattle and get essentially the same education that rich people got at fancy private schools. Higher ed was the engine of U.S. middle class growth and increased access to college corresponded with the lowest level of U.S. economic inequality in the twentieth century—and the defunding of public higher ed has corresponded with the transformation of the United States into one of the most inequitable societies ever. Public funding of research in public universities also drove innovations in energy, agriculture, the internet, and aerospace that still pay dividends today.

Public universities also played a vital and nourishing role in the social movements of the 1950s, 60s, and 70s. The G. I. Bill along with the various strands of the Women’s and Civil Rights movements brought working class people, women, and people of color into universities in large numbers. These students brought with them demands for the relevant curricula of Women’s Studies, Black Studies, and Ethnic Studies programs. And they organized to make the world a better place. The end of the Vietnam War began on college campuses. The Free Speech Movement began at a public university. Huey Newton met Bobby Seale in college. The Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee was created by Black college students. Angela Davis was and is a public university professor.

College as the incubator of a more democratic, less white, less patriarchal society was what most frightened Governor Reagan and his descendants (who include, to one degree or another, not only the Bushes and Trump, but also Presidents Clinton and Obama). As long as higher ed was for mostly middle class white boys, it was a public good. But as soon as other kinds of people start filling classrooms, a sustained and organized effort to redefine higher ed began. Politicians brought us budget cuts and tuition increases. Well-funded think tanks and task forces brought us a relentless campaign to redefine higher ed as a private good. These arguments have become so naturalized that any attempt these days to speak of college as anything more than supermarkets where students shop for credentials that will bring them a higher salary gets a dismissive wave from most politicians and policy makers. We tell our students that our tuition is worth crippling debt because our degrees will bring them more money. In both the way we treat them and the way we talk about them, college presidents have become CEOs and students have become customers. Last year, a coalition of higher education advocates in Washington helped pass the Workforce Education Investment Act. In arguing for that investment, we dared not range beyond the idea of our students as anything more than a workforce. Our debate around college has become so constricted that we can only conceive of it as training employees, not educating citizens.

Following the money can tell us some hard truths about how we got to where we find ourselves today. Between 1989 and 2013, state appropriations for higher education in the United States increased by 5%. In the same time, state appropriations for the Corrections industry increased by 89%. In Washington during that same period, state appropriations per FTE higher education student decreased by 50%, while state spending per capita on Corrections increased by 43%. We’d rather pay to send people (especially Black and Brown people) to jail than to send them to college. And as we can see in our streets now, we get what we pay for.

About Guest Writer

Citizen Journalist • Member since Jun 15, 2008

Guest Writer is for over 100 articles by individuals who are not regular writers. Their actual name and brief info is listed at the top or bottom of their articles.

Comments by Readers


Jun 19, 2020

First half of the article was really valuable and interesting.  As Governor, Reagan definitely led the effort to change the funding mechanism for public higher education to the detriment of society at large. Online education can work, but as Malcom Gladwell said, it takes up to 10,000 hours for mastery, but most educators have resisted online education until forced into it. They won’t become masters of the new normal and associated changes to their craft overnight.  My brother is a tenured professor at NCSU and has been teaching a blend of in person and online for 15 years now - he would agree that in person is best, but his online classes are also very successful and are well attended.

I find the second half of the article assigning these funding changes to wholeheartedly evil intent, a big miss.  The core issue is the failure of legislators, and university administrators, to keep costs down, and then passing the buck (literally) to students and their families.

I know it’s hard for public employees to face the fact that (this time) they’re going to share in pay cuts and job losses rather than just shifting who provides the funding, but assigning those to evil intent is a bit rich, when private businesses generally can’t pay near what public institutions do (when times are good), and even less when times are bad.

I fully believe that tuition should be as low as possible for students, but feel that higher education hasn’t worked on its structural deficiencies to keep costs down.  As the author said, the costs were just shifted on to students, but what was unsaid is that adminstrators and faculty haven’t historically made the hard decisions needed to keep costs down.

I do think that 3 to 5 years from now, higher education will hopefully have embraced these new forms of teaching and faced the hard reality that a big part of the problem with ever rising tuition rests with the institutions themselves.  God speed!




Konrad Lau

Jun 19, 2020

Not only should taxpayers not “subsidize intellectual curiosity”, they should not fund anti-American, communist, and socialist propaganda and indoctrination.

Many college degrees have been proven to be virtually worthless in the open market and have driven student debt to record levels. Much of that debt has been brought about since the Federal government under Barack Obama took over the system for financing school loans.

Not long ago I spoke with an instructor at a local Community College Welding Department and was told, “I have only ever had one student that did not have a high paying job before his graduation. There is a waiting list for my graduates.”

When was the last time you heard of a waiting list for graduates feverishly clutching a degree in Political Science, Social Science or Hair Style History?

Most colleges have vast fortunes in endowments. No one ever discusses liquidating them???

I can easily imagine when the Legislature reconvenes, college administrators will be beating a path to their representatives asking for tax increases, so they won’t have to dip into their collective wealth.  

When I lose my job, I have to sell my house.


D. Crook

Jun 19, 2020

Some educational istitutions manage online and face-to-face learning very well; others aspire to; others not so much.  There’s really not a single category of instution here, in that respect; and there is certainly no concensus that ‘online education is bad’ among institutions.

The grass-hopper cohort at some institutions have resisted online education mightily for many years.  These are the comfortable and experienced with face-to-face learning; the uncomfortable and inexperienced with online learning; whom Covid (though it certainly wasn’t the first to come along) found un-prepared, un-trained, and in need of a heroic level of support from staff as well as the ant cohort of their faculty colleagues (strong, growing, and some are even “the gray haired among [you]”).

It’s quite a reduction, just ants and grasshoppers—I admit it—quite unfair, in fact—but not moreso than the author’s claim that online education isn’t as good as what we’ve used over the ages leading up to the computer-age; or that somehow one mode must exclude the other.  If the bet he’s putting on the table is faculty who reacted to Covid heroically—I see and deeply appreciate his bet, and raise him faculty who prepared for many years heroically and staff who support heroically—and let’s not stop there.

Should I mention—or have you already thought of it?—that we would not praise a student’s effort as “heroic” if they resisted doing their coursework all quarter long—offering hyperbole and dollar-store arguements in the vein of it not being as good as a class they like better (an argument worthy of a ‘way we’ve always done it’ award at the next Darwins), and mustachio-twisting profit-seeking strawmen as the only type of person who would disagree—only to cram for the last week of the quarter in order to pass the class.  If we wouldn’t praise this behavior in students, why would we praise it in…anyone else?

More importantly, however, is the fact that the winter was here long before Covid.  Access to education has always been important for traditional students—in fact, it was made for them specifically.  What wasn’t always acknowledged is that it’s also important for every other member of our community—  veterans, full-time workers, single parents, racially excluded, disability-excluded, regionally-excluded, financially-excluded and othewise-exluded populations who could not come to campus like a traditional student.  Sometimes, for some, online education is what creates the access and opportunity that is needed.  Is it a 100% solution?  No, of course not—but neither is face-to-face.

Justice for all equals access for all—and I I think the author sees that—sort of.  He could have written a piece about the real and meaningful importance of public education without the gratuitus swipe at online education, and without disparriaging the amazing, talented and successful students who have needed it, used it, and benefited from it as pajama-wearing lesser-thans.  Really Bill—you could have.


Scott Wicklund

Jun 19, 2020

All colleges and universities have swelled financially during what we should call
The Biden Boom when student debt was exempted from bankruptcy haircuts.  Salaries grew for the top end and buildings were built.  Adjunct faculty not so much unlike fund raisers, football coaches, and presidents.  You could study anything as long as you agreed to the graveyard claims your loans represented—inextinguishable no matter what your circumstances were.  Like sub-prime mortgages but backed by the government:  guaranteed pay back of principal, interest, and penalties.  How this shakes out will not be pretty…


Mike Rostron

Jun 19, 2020

Speaking both as one who has a “traditional” college degree as a result of spending many hours in the classroom, and as the father of a daughter who is presently enduring the change from face to face to online education, I can say the latter does not compare, and the author is right on the mark. 

One of the problems with internet classes is the technology itself. Besides learning the material, students are forced to struggle with computer applications and internet connection issues. For the lower income students, these can be huge barriers—not so much for wealthier students who have better computers and faster connection speeds. Some countries have leveled this playing field, but this is not the case in the USA, where internet access and speeds depend on the level of local service, and the ability to pay for it.

If there is one thing taxpayers should subsidize it is “intellectual curiosity.” Having socialist values is not anti-American. After all, we do have fire departments, libraries, police departments, national defence, and the post office—all examples of “good old American” tax payer funded socialist institutions.

I do agree with Konrad that some degrees have no value in the “open market.” Whether they have value for the person who got the degree, and for society at large is a different kind of question. Not everything should be evaluated in the context of whether it serves the market, or results in financial gain for an individual, company, or society. 


David A. Swanson

Jun 19, 2020

Thanks for a thoughful article. From some of the comments, it is likely that those who left them are “pre-reflective thinkers,” folks who did not achieve one of the major goals of a “liberal arts education,” the development of the critical thinking skills essential for a rational and democratic society. Perhaps they went through a post-secondary vocational program as did more that a few of my high school friends who, upon graduation, learned how to weld at Columbia Basin College and through experience became journeyman welders, some of whom could work with exotic metals (such as found in those days at Hanford) and were in high demand. I would not rate any of them less mentally able than those of us who did go on to acquire a liberal arts education. However, as I learned in many conversations with them over the years, only a few made it past the “pre-reflective” stage to the quasi-reflective stage, and vitually none of them made it to the final stage, “reflective thinking,” the ability to reason about unstructured questions that have no absolute answers. They were stuck ih a dualistic, deterministic mode of looking at the world, very concretely, which may be why many of them voted for the pre-reflective thinker now occupying the White House. Looking back on my time in the US Army (Yes, in addition to having citizenship by birthright, I also earned my citizenship, as did at least two other staff writers for NWC), I can see that virtually all of the career NCOs were of the same ilk. I never spent much time around officers so I cannot say if the bulk of them were or not, My felllow airborne qualified, NWC writer, Dick Conoboy, who finished jump school at Ft. Benning about a month before I did, is better equipped to answer that question

Below is an outline of the “reflective thinker” journey.

King and Kitchener (1994) organize each of the three major stages in the process according to the manifestation of three issues: (1) epistemology; (2) an understanding of causality; and (3) evidence and its connection to logical reasoning and conclusions. Outlined in Table 1 below are the three major stages and the manifestations of the issues that characterize them.

Table 1. The Three Major Stages of Deep Structure Learning and Their Issues






Causality Understanding

Evidence, Logical Reasoning and Conclusions







Anecdotal, no connections to logical  reasoning and conclusions







Idiosyncratic, often unconnected to logical reasoning and conclusions



Commitment to an understanding of epistemology



Probabilistic Commitment to a particular interpretation

Reaching the “reflective stage is not an easy process. The journey strips away a lot of authority-oriented, dualistic thinking ingrained in us through childhood that requires more than a bit of mental and emotional sturdiness to discard (If God made the world as we now find it, why do viruses mutate? -What? Are you now questioning the existence of God?). Moreover, it is not easy to assess interpretations from a probabilistic viewpoint. It requires constant, critical thinking, something that too many of us forego in favor of the easy approach, consuming the voluminous amounts of mind syrup presented in our digital world as news, “sellavision” (call now and we’ll include the bamboo steamer at absolutely no cost to you, just pay shipping and handling!), religious programming and entertainment. It is very much akin to using the scientific method as way to get through life, which means you have to juggle never being 100 percent certain about anything - constantly revising your thinking as new evidence comes in.

Table 2 below (borrowed from Milo Schield, 1999) shows the characteristics associated with the journey to reflective thinking via six conceptualization domains that foster its development: (1) alternative explanations and solutions to problems; (2) manipulation of symbols;  (3) ambiguity and uncertainty; (4) causality as a multivariate process;  (5) probabilistic interpretation; and (6) internal and external dialogues needed to communicate analytical results. 

           TABLE 2.  Conceptual Domains and Deep Structure Learning Stages






Alternative Explanations

Not sought

Sometimes sought

Actively sought on a routine basis

Manipulation of Symbols

Poorly done

Somewhat well done

Very well done

Ambiguity and Uncertainty

Highly stressful

Somewhat stressful,

Not very stressful

Causality as a Multivariate process

Rarely considered

Sometimes considered

Routinely considered

Probabilistic Interpretation

Rarely used

Sometimes used

Routinely used

Internal and External Dialogues

Rarely used

Sometimes used

Regular and on-going


You don’t have to get a liberal arts degree to become a reflective thinker and getting one does not guarantee that you are. However, it is one of the major goals of a liberal arts education and like many goals,  the development of critical thinking skills requires the same kind of dedication and “exercise” commitment that completing something like the ski to sea competition does. Some have the commitment and some don’t.

Contrary to the proposition that a degree in one of the liberal arts does one no good on the job market, there is a lot of evidence to the contrary. Business executives themsleves often have liberal arts undergraduate educations and most business executives and hiring managers place a high value on the skills - such as reflective thinking - that liberal arts majors bring to the table  ( Having hired people myself when I worked in the private sector and in goverment jobs before I went into academia, the evidence and my experience suggest to me that here are more than a few who believe that a liberal arts education is not worthwhile because they had neither the “exposure” nor the  “visibility” to the world it can open up. They remain in a “pre-refective”  stage holding a dualistic, deterministic view of the world and their exposure and visibility is largely confined to others stuck in this same stage, mutually reinforcing their inability to reason about unstructured questions that have no absolute answers, where all is made right by daily doses of mind syrup.

I remain forever grateful to the bygone world of higher education described by Bill Lyne, the state of Washington and its taxpayers, the GI Bill, fellow students and friends, and, especially the professors I had at WWU (Then WWSC) for providing me not only with a context for my life but also with the technical skills (a minor in math /computer science) and the full benefits of an affordable liberal arts undergraduate education. I am sorry that this bygone world has changed from a public good to a privatized asset and that students today have to endure the heavy debt load that went hand-in-hand with this tragic distortion of public higher education. This is likely due in large part to the election of a succession of “pre-reflective” officials, starting in 1980, at the local, state, and national level by the “pre-reflective” mutually reinforcing voters, an American conundrum exquisitely captured by Joe Baegant (RIP) in his book, “Deer Hunting with Jesus” (


King, P., and K. Kitchener. (1994). Developing Reflective Thinking: Understanding and Promoting Intellectual Growth and Critical Thinking in Adolescents and Adults. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Schield, M. (1999). “Statistical Literacy: Thinking Critically About Statistics” Of Significance 1(1): 15-21.