Privatization Everywhere: Public Universities Want to Go Private

Houston Press
Privatize It!
Privatization -- the other side of the deregulation coin -- has long been a favorite watchword among economic conservatives. Indeed, we can go back all the way to 1981, when President Reagan warned us that government was the problem, not the solution.

Thirty-plus years on, this rhetoric still has staying power. It seems like a number of well-known public universities want to get the government "off their back" and go private. For example, in Oregon, the University of Oregon, Oregon State University and Portland State University -- the three largest of the state's seven public colleges and universities -- will all be private schools as of next July.

This movement is not confined to Oregon. As Pacific Standard reports:

Across the country, a small but growing number of public universities are making similar pushes, looking to cut deals with state lawmakers that scale back direct oversight, often in return for less funding or for meeting certain performance targets. Over the past few years, schools in Texas, Virginia, and Florida have all gotten more flexibility to raise tuition. Other plans have recently been broached, though with less success, in Wisconsin, California, and Louisiana.

The reason why this is so is not too hard to figure out: as states have cut (and cut) funding for their public universities, public higher education inches toward the private university model: higher tuition costs, and more financial aid for those students the universities want to attract.

And who are those students? The ones that will boost a school's rankings and prestige. This of course means that more and more students from lower-income families will (are) being priced out of higher education. ProPublica has shown that, in a gross inversion, wealthier kids are sucking up the aid from colleges and universities, leaving the most financially needy in a bind.

Stop me if this all sounds familiar. Here again, the siren song of the Chicago School of Economics -- deregulation! free markets! the private sector is more efficient! -- rears its head with the same consequences. The Great Recession was in large part, if not solely, because of this economic vision.

But that is macro, privatization has micro effects as well. Remember the "Kids for Cash" scandal in Pennsylvania:

Between 2003 and 2008, two Pennsylvania judges accepted millions of dollars in kickbacks from a private juvenile detention facility in exchange for sending children -- girls and boys, some as young as 11 -- to jail.

We seem, though, to never learn. Oh, that was just a few bad apples. When the basic functions of government -- the penal system, education, etc. -- are turned over to private interests, the result is usually not more efficiency, but inequality and scandal.

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