The 2013-14 academic year is shaping up to be a pivotal one for the American student movement. Developments both on-campus and off promise to shape the landscape of higher ed organizing in huge ways. For the rest of this week, I’ll be posting the top twelve stories I’ve got my eye on as the fall semester gets underway.
12. Janet Napolitano and the future of the University of California.
The University of California is one of the nation’s most prestigious public university systems, and for the last several years it’s been a flashpoint for the changes and controversies that have been roiling American higher education. In-state tuition at UC is the highest in the nation, while out of state fees now rival Harvard’s. The system has been battered by budget cuts and bruised by the MOOC debate. Students have staged powerful and inventive protests across the state, and the police brutality they have been met with has become a national scandal.
And now UC is getting a new president.
Janet Napolitano will be the first female president of UC, the first politician, and the first non-academic. Hired for her political acumen and management skills, it’s not at all clear yet what kind of a University of California she’ll be advocating for, either internally or in Sacramento. UC observers will be watching closely in the coming months to see how Napolitano handles issues of university funding, campus governance, student protest, and — crucially — undocumented student issues. Napolitano has promised to be “an advocate for the undocumented” at UC, but as head of the Department of Homeland Security she presided over a wave of deportations that was unprecedented in its scope.
11. The growing use of institutional divestment campaigns as a student organizing tool.
In the 1980s institutional divestment campaigns were a central component of US student organizing against South Africa’s apartheid regime. By pressing universities to cut ties with businesses operating in South Africa, students yoked the financial clout of colleges’ huge endowments to the moral force of institutional accountability.
In recent years students have resurrected the divestment campaign as a tactic in other struggles, most notably in opposition to the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and to American dependence on fossil fuels. In each case, momentum for these divestment campaigns has grown year-to-year, and plans are already in place for efforts at new campuses this fall. Also: Look for the tactic to spread to other issues as the Israel and fossil fuel divestment movements continue to garner greater attention.
10. Tuition alternatives in Oregon and beyond.
Oregon’s legislature got a lot of press a few months ago for a proposal called Pay it Forward that many headline writers hailed as an end to tuition in the state’s public colleges. It’s not that, but it is interesting.
The idea behind Pay it Forward is that students would be given the option of delaying tuition charges and then paying them off as a percentage of their income for a set number of years after college. In some respects, this is simply a repackaged version of the income-based loan repayment plans that have started to get traction around the country in recent years, so it’s not quite as revolutionary as it seems. It is, however a big step forward for a relatively new way of thinking about college costs.
Is it a good plan? To a large extent that’s going to depend on the details. A high repayment rate and a long repayment schedule would make the plan a lot less appealing, obviously, and how the numbers shake out in the long term depends on a lot of factors — how much of the cost of education students are expected to shoulder, obviously, but also how many students participate in the program and which ones. If students with high prospective incomes wind up opting out (either by taking advantage of a traditional-tuition alternative or simply choosing other colleges), the poorer students in the Pay it Forward pool will wind up getting squeezed more.
Pay it Forward isn’t going to be implemented immediately, even in Oregon. (The legislature there has asked that a pilot program be up and running by 2015.) But lawmakers in other states are already sniffing around the idea, and more will surely follow as the Oregon proposal moves forward.
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That’s the first installment of the list. Additional entries will be posted every day this week — come back tomorrow for a discussion of Obama’s higher ed funding proposal, the future of the United States Student Association, and more.