I had claimed I was going to finish off my higher ed series by the end of September. And then it became October. And, well, now October is nearly done, and I feel like if I procrastinate about this post any longer there won’t be a point to writing it.
In other words, it seems like the time has come for me finally to think about the money piece of this. The problem is, it’s not just a “money piece.” It’s like a thousand tiny money pieces – shards, really – that don’t quite fit together and that compete with one another.
Rather than enumerate all of the thousand tiny pieces, though, I’ll stick with what I see as the big three that affect all schools. In no particular order:
- Tuition. As Historiann has written, the public discourse on tuition doesn’t quite reflect the reality of what most students pay for a college education. Nevertheless, it is the case that tuition costs do keep rising, and the public isn’t seeing what it’s getting for that money. Is that a problem of PR or is it that students really aren’t getting more for the money? Is it that the public doesn’t believe that education is actually something worth paying for?
- Money for the University itself. It costs money to keep the lights on. It costs money to have nice landscaping. It costs money to raise money, to find money elsewhere when the state keeps taking back the money that it used to give. It costs money to have a range of programs, computer labs, buildings, and all those things that make a college campus a college campus. Library acquisitions. All the things.
- Faculty/Staff. You’d think we’re all millionaires from the way that the public perceives us, though clearly that isn’t the case. However, we do cost money. Maybe not as much money as we’d like to cost, but money nonetheless, not only for salaries but also for things like health insurance.
The problem is, and this is why I haven’t been able to write this post, I have absolutely no ideas and no answers. Because the reality (or at the very least my reality) is that there isn’t enough money to satisfy the different constituencies represented by these three broad areas. There is not enough money, say, to convert all of the sections that are taught by adjuncts to sections taught by full-timers with benefits. There is not enough money to stop tuition from rising, particularly when people don’t want to pay taxes and when state governments think that the best way to make up for budget shortfalls is to gut higher education. There is not enough money to do all of those things that make a university all shiny and fancy and an “experience” and an “environment” that students will pay for.
At least at my university, I feel as if there is very little fat left to trim. That “feeling” is based on the fact that our state budget has been slashed by millions. And yet, the rumors are already starting about the fat that will be trimmed when we hear about the state budget, which will be slashing our funding once again.
It’s also worth noting that while all of this is happening, universities are being called to graduate more and more students, students whom they don’t have room to enroll in face to face classes and students who can’t necessarily to get jobs when they’ve finished.
I am… cynical? depressed? at a loss for what I can do to address structural problems that are so deep and wide and vast? demoralized? tired?
Yeah, at any given moment, those are the prevailing things that I am, and I think that those are the sentiments that weigh on most of us in higher ed these days. And I’ll tell you: I get irritable when people talk about unionizing as if it’s the answer to any of the above problems, because that’s not a model that is likely to have any traction in my state, and so when people hold up unions as the answer, I feel like they are closing their eyes to my working conditions and the realities of my location, applying a solution that would work for them in a one-size-fits-all sort of way that certainly isn’t going to fit where I live and work. But then I feel like a jerk for being resistant because it’s not like I have any answers either.
I suppose what I’m looking for is a leader. I’m looking for somebody with vision, somebody who presents a future to me and not just who administers our decline. I’m looking for somebody who will be honest about the fact that you can’t get blood from a stone, so legislators and politicians should stop trying. I’m looking for somebody who will tell the general public that they are getting a crappier education the more that they refuse to pay for what they’re getting. I’m looking for somebody to give a shit about what people at comprehensive liberal arts colleges and state universities have to say about these issues, because, quite frankly, it’s those institutions that together educate the vast majority of Americans – not elite slacs and research universities. I’m looking for somebody to understand that as much as our problems are about the money that our larger goals aren’t, in fact, anything to do with money. Our larger goals are about things it sounds naive to care about: knowledge, culture, innovation, a thoughtfully lived life. I’m looking for somebody to take a stand about those things mattering and being worth the price that we have to pay for them. And I fear that I am absolutely the most unrealistic and silly person in the world for wanting those things, ’cause, folks, I am not likely ever to get them.
So I know this is a bleak conclusion. But I’ve got nothing, folks. Thoughts?