Universities and colleges probably have a lot of fixed costs too, that may have been set before any reduction in government funding took effect. Things like staff salaries, contracts for goods and services, taxes, mortgages, and so on. Costs that can't be reduced, no matter how much money is coming in. So a reduction in state or federal funding just transfers a greater share of these fixed costs onto the students through increased tuition.
This is true. This past year our college has operated under a one million-dollar shortfall thanks to state budget cuts. We cut the very few low-enrolled programs we had, offered early retirement packages, laid off support staff, and increased class size across the board--and we still had to raise tuition. Even then, we're struggling to balance the budget. There really isn't a lot of fat to cut, not without adversely affecting the learning environment (though I always argue for decreasing administration). Technology costs alone are daunting. And this is just a community college.
Of course, if Bush follows through on his promise, community colleges are going to get more federal funds. I guess the push may be to get more students to complete their first two years in a less expensive community college before transferring to a state university. That will certainly be appealing if students have to pay most if not all of their tuition costs via loans instead of grants.
A move also may be underfoot to entice people to pursue two-year technical degrees rather than four-year college degrees. We are, in many ways, returning to the pre-New Deal ideal in which only the privileged attended college--unless they went via the GI Bill. Frankly, I have mixed feelings about that. Having taught for twenty-five years, I can tell you that college isn't for everyone. Not everyone is academically inclined. We have long needed a good apprenticeship system to meet the needs of those who are smart, capable people not suited to academia.
It bothers me that this should be determined by family income, however. I've seen some awfully bright kids come from some awfully poor neighborhoods, and I've seen some mighty dull rich kids. I was very lucky in that when I attended college, it was affordable enough for me to live at home, work, and put myself through. My parents had invested all they could for my older brother's university education, and when my time came, they simply didn't have the money to provide tuition and books, much less dorm fees, etc. So I attended a commuter campus. I worked my tail off, loved it, and was fortunate enough to get an assistantship to enable me to go to grad school. It's difficult to imagine the same kind of scenario for working class kids today because tuition costs are enormous in comparison to what I paid.
So, if college costs are prohibitive for most working-class people, and if most working-class kids go to inferior K-12 schools to begin with thanks to the way we fund education based on local property taxes, then it seems to me that this would blow a real hole in the American Dream. Education, after all, is the key to upward mobility. If quality education is available only to those who can afford it (or who aren't afraid to take out enormous loans) then we'll have a real caste system in our society.