So President Obama gave a speech on the economy yesterday at Knox College in Galesburg, Illinois. A couple of quotes from the Chronicle of Higher Education's coverage:
Obama said he planned to "lay out an aggressive strategy to shake up" higher education in the next few months.
And: "Families and taxpayers can't just keep paying more and more into an undisciplined system where costs just keep on going up and up and up. We'll never have enough loan money, we'll never have enough grant money to keep up with costs that are going up 5, 6, 7 percent a year. We've got to get more out of what we pay for."
And, most distressingly: "Some states are testing new ways to fund college based not just on how many students enroll but how many of them graduate, how well do they do."
Let me comment a bit.
I really do hate when people who have little knowledge of higher education in the United States want to "shake it up" with grand plans for change. Can't wait for these brilliant ideas.
I can't speak about four-year colleges and universities around the country but I do know a couple of things about two-year community colleges in the State University of New York (SUNY) system. When the community college system was created, it was supposed to be funded 1/3 from the State, 1/3 from the local county, and 1/3 from student tuition. Students are now paying about 1/2 of our budget. Why? County funding has remained relatively flat for many years (because they're broke) and the State has, in the past, actively cut our appropriations (they've since restored a little, but not as much as they cut in the first place). Operating costs don't decrease so students have to pony up more money. Why are you blaming us? It's the god-damned government not meeting their obligations and not supporting public education!
Oh, you'll reply, you faculty members are sucking us dry with your high salaries. Um, sorry, I make significantly (tens of thousands of dollars) less than local high school teachers with the same (or less!) education and experience. Our last four year contract was 0%, 0%, 1.6%, and 1.6%. Less than the cost of living in the mid-Hudson Valley has increased over the past four years. By the way, 2/3 of our faculty are adjunct (part-time) instructors without benefits and working for low pay (typically less than $2,500 to teach a three credit course for three months, before taxes).
Well then, we must be sinking money into fancy new buildings and equipment. Nope. Not us. We can't even upgrade many faculty member's old office computers because there's no money. Drop by sometime and I'll show you the leaking ceiling in the physics lab (it was "fixed" with a bucket). I can show you cinder block offices the size of your bedroom closet that a dozen adjunct instructors share. We can look at the mold growing in some faculty member's offices. The college has no spare money for infrastructure repair and improvements in many buildings.
Why are costs going up? A big factor is health insurance costs. Yes, full-time employees at our college have health insurance. How selfish of us wanting health insurance after going to college for 6 to 8 to even 10 years and earning multiple degrees (I didn't finish paying off my student loans until I was in my late 40s, by the way).
And, speaking of health insurance, are you familiar with the new Obama care regulations requiring employers to provide health insurance to anyone working over 30 hours/week? Guess what the result of that is? More employees getting health insurance? Silly goose! The result of this law is people simply get their hours cut down to 29.5 hours/week. Adjunct faculty who used to be able to teach up to 11.5 credit hours of courses will now only be able to teach up to 9.5 (even less if they also do tutoring or other work for the college). Who could have imagined such a surprising result?
So, speaking of unintended consequences of well-meaning but ill-conceived laws, when I hear Obama saying, "Some states are testing new ways to fund college based not just on how many students enroll but how many of them graduate, how well do they do," I want to rip my hair out. Why?
OK, let's take an open-admission community college. We admit students no other college would ever admit. That's a good thing - it gives everyone a CHANCE to succeed. Some of them will not. Why? It's not politically correct to say this anymore, but they don't have the mental ability to do so. They are not, as we say, "college material." Others are immature and never show up for class, never turn in assignments, earn a 20% out of 100% on their exams, wander off in the middle of the semester never to be seen again, etc. I've seen it all in my classes. These students just need to grow up a bit (usually after they go to work for a couple of years and see how much better school was than a crappy job). You're going to base funding of this college based on the success or failure of these students!?!?
What's the result? Strong pressure from above for student retention and success. Even if the students do not learn the material and don't deserve to pass. This will lead, of course, to the inevitable lowering of academic standards and the devaluation of our two-year degree to the status of toilet paper.
This is what has happened to high schools. My wife and I homeschool our children for a reason. Students are GRADUATING high school and they are innumerate and illiterate. Not all - some kids are bright, come from good supporting families, and do well. But there are also a large number just being pushed through and handed a worthless degree. And they come to our college. And we bend over backwards and do our very best to help them succeed but not all will succeed. Some will fail. There's not a damned thing in hell we can do about it because the students themselves are not motivated or capable (I've had students tell me they NEVER read books - how the hell can you succeed in college and not fucking read? Why is this my fault or the college's fault if they inevitably fail?).
It's a stupid idea that will not succeed (and will actively harm higher education in this country).
I'd like to close this rant with a quote about California's spending (New York is similar):
"Thirty years ago, 10 percent of the general fund went to higher education and only 3 percent went to prisons. Today, almost 11 percent goes to prisons and only 7.5 percent goes to higher education. Spending 45 percent more on prisons than universities is no way to proceed into the future."
Sending a poor young man to community college for free (maybe $5000/year if he lives at home) versus being uneducated, unemployed, getting into trouble, and eventually prison ($56,000 / inmate / year in NYS). Which might be a better investment? Maybe not all will succeed in college. But some will.
Did you know that yours truly, the Hudson Valley Geologist, is a high school dropout? I went to a community college and eventually succeeded (well, if you call this success). I had that opportunity (I almost didn't because I had a LOT of trouble scraping up the tuition and book money each semester and had to skip semesters to work full-time). Without the community college system, I might be working in the warehouse I worked one summer driving a forklift for minimum wage and no benefits. Or maybe in prison - I wasn't an angel. Now, of course, I'm a well-respected member of the community (I laugh as I write this!). There are a lot of people who have the ability to succeed in college but they simply can't go because they can't afford it. That's a damn shame and it's not the fault of my institution - we do the best we can with very limited resources. The blame lies squarely on the State and Federal government and the choices THEY make.
Come visit us, Obama. Come without the SUNY administrators and the presidents of colleges and the congressmen and other political critters that only visit for media events. Come and talk to normal folk - full-time and adjunct faculty, staff, and the students. I'd be happy to show you around campus.