ORONO — Higher education has been a key to upward mobility in American society for over 300 years. Access to public universities has been a critical pathway since the mid-19th century, but this opportunity is rapidly eroding.

We are seeing the slow death and decline of the public university, and President Obama’s proposal to fund the first two years of community college will further accelerate the public university’s destruction.

How is this so?

For the last 30 years, states have been reducing their financial support of public universities. In 1987, public institutions of higher education received only 20 percent of their revenue from tuition. In 2012, that number was 44 percent.

As an example, a public university’s tuition in 1987 was $2,700 (in-state, average one-year cost). In 2012, the same figure rose to $9,850. A student in 1987 was responsible for $540 a year (20 percent of $2,700). But in 2012, that cost was $4,334 (44 percent of $9,850) – or eight times what it was in 1987.

If states had continued to fund higher education at the rate that they did in 1987, the cost to the student in 2012 would have been $1,970 and not $4,334 as noted above. This increased cost to the student results from a combination of reduced state funding and increased educational costs of all kinds (e.g., heat, equipment, facilities, maintenance, salaries, benefits).

As a comparison, private university tuition in 1987 was $12,800; in 2012, on average it was $33,650 (with many notable exceptions that are much higher). Sadly, private education is not within the financial reach of most of our young people.

Broadly, the president’s community college proposal will provide two years’ free education, if a student is making progress, earning good grades and is not receiving other federally funded financial aid (e.g., Pell Grants).

The unintended consequence of this program is to erode the student base in public four-year universities, further driving up costs. It appears that this program will not actually help the poorest in our society but rather the near-poor.

Consider a family under financial stress, or a larger family looking at whether to pay tuition to a public university or to get two years’ free education at a community college. The clearly financially preferable decision is the community college. The family planning to send a child to a private institution is unlikely to take advantage of this program.

The president’s proposal does not refer to technical college programs. Not every person wants a college degree; some want to develop technical expertise, and we need those individuals as well. It is not clear how much this proposal might siphon off those who would succeed in a technical educational arena.

Those involved in community colleges suggest that this program will lead to a 20 percent rise in student population in its first year. It is not clear that community colleges can absorb this enormous influx without significant additional costs beyond those presented by the president. The most likely source for this additional financial support is the state, which would further cannibalize the financial support for public universities.

If the goal is to have students move on to obtain a bachelor’s degree, the data, as reported by the Community College Research Center at Columbia University, does not support this outcome. Only 22 percent of community college students graduate in three years; the graduation rate improves to 28 percent after four years at the community college.

According to researchers at Columbia and elsewhere, one in four community college students goes on to a four-year college within five years of earning their community college degree – and only 60 percent of those actually earn a bachelor’s.

One way to address this issue is to offer two years’ free education to those who select either a community college or a public university. This will ease the strain of a sudden 20 percent increase in the student population across the community college and public university systems in a given state. The two systems will not cannibalize one another for funds, and the door to upward mobility for future generations will remain open.

As a society, our values are expressed in what we do for the majority of our citizens. Public higher education has been eroded for the last 30 years and is becoming out of reach for many. At the same time, private higher education is not a realistic option.

If we wish to keep that door open for mobility, for a better life and to move our society and economy forward, funding the first two years of education at both community colleges and public universities would reinforce those values that we say are important. The time to revisit the financing of public universities is now.