Last year, my IHE blogging colleague John Warner published an unjustly neglected book arguing that we should understand public higher education not as a business, but as a sort of social infrastructure. I reviewed it favorably at the time.
Watching the disaster unfold in Texas over the last few days, I kept coming back to the idea.
Infrastructure disasters typically follow a pattern. There’s an extended period of neglect, during which people who are paying close attention are sounding various alarms, but nothing really conspicuous happens to interrupt the public narrative. Maintenance is deferred, repairs are partial, and service or structure gradually degrades. Then something dramatic happens and people get upset. Unfortunately, in many cases, the shock wears off too quickly to galvanize meaningful change, and we wind up with the latest in a series of just-good-enough-for-now patches. Over time, the patches become a sort of Rube Goldberg system of their own.
In the case of the Texas power grid, it looks like the major contributing factor was long-term neglect of the grid, which, in turn, was partially a result of Texas’ secession from the rest of the country’s grid. The autonomy from federal regulations allowed utilities to skimp on maintenance and winterization. After years of that, a strong cold snap was enough to cause chaos. (The argument that renewables don’t work in cold weather would come as a surprise to Norway and Sweden.) But the cold snap wasn’t really so much a cause as a catalyst; the cause was years of systematic neglect.
Infrastructure is like editing; when it’s done right, you almost don’t notice it. Everything just sort of works. Infrastructure isn’t meant to pay for itself; it’s meant to enable the generation of much greater wealth, both public and private, by reducing transaction costs. We pay for it collectively, though taxes, because the benefits are so diffuse that trying to break them out per user would result in catastrophic underinvestment. I benefit from the existence of roads on which I’ve never driven, because those roads made goods and services cheaper and more available. Good infrastructure generates positive externalities at scale.
Public education, including public higher education, is similar. Yes, of course, there are individual benefits to students, just as there are individual benefits to drivers from good roads. But there are also much larger positive externalities.
The drift away from public funding, and towards tuition-based funding, has resulted (as one would predict) in underinvestment. Public colleges have adapted through a combination of ingenuity and patches. The steady movement away from full-time faculty in favor of adjunct faculty can be seen as the accretion of patches over time. Any given patch, in isolation, can be a reasonably elegant solution to an immediate problem. But patches rely on the solidity of the underlying structure. Over time, that underlying structure needs attention.
In this metaphor. COVID is the cold snap. It’s exposing some areas that have gone unaddressed for too long. But it’s not the reason they went unaddressed. It’s a catalyst, rather than a cause.
My hope is that when COVID finally fades away, we don’t jump too quickly back into the cycle that made higher ed so vulnerable in the first place. The trend towards considering it a private good was based on a fundamental misunderstanding of what education is. For a while, it was possible to put off that conversation through yet another round of belt-tightening. As a sector, we’ve hit the limits of that strategy. It’s time to strengthen those aspects of the public — whether it’s electricity grid management, higher education, or whatever else — that make private prosperity possible in the first place.