Thursday, December 29, 2005

Whoring Out Higher Education

I have watched the unfolding dilemma in our public education system with great apprehension, as should any American who values the future of our country, both socially, technologically, and economically. One of our greatest responsibilities is to maintain an educated populace and workforce. The benefits of such a society are innumerable. Not only would technological and scientific breakthroughs continue to improve our knowledge of the world and its potential uses, but educated peoples are more likely to take an active role in government, helping guide our nation to a brighter future. Uneducated masses are more prone to propaganda, secret legislation, more apt to fall into other modes of government that do not benefit the majority of the people. They are easier to mislead.

There are a plethora of problems inundating our school systems on a national level, more than there is space here to illuminate. Some of these are mere petty obstacles to be overcome with reason, like school prayer and intelligent design debates. These get a lot of press time because they are hot-button issues. Others are vastly more important, yet not nearly as reported upon as they should be. Such examples include physical education, arts and music education, scholastic standards, classroom sizes, teacher compensation and accountability, even finding qualified teachers. These issues I will hopefully touch on in the coming months.

Today’s topic, though, is on the funding of higher education, and the theoretical consequences thereof. The public college system is in grave danger from a lack of consistent financial support from all levels of the government. This precipitous drop has retarded the ability of public education at a college/university level to fulfill its stated duty of preparing the next generation of academic minds. One example is the University of California system, which has seen a 40% drop in state-based funding in the last two decades alone, according to spokeswoman Ravi Poorsina. Congress seems keen to follow this pattern, for in the House’s planned $50 billion in tax cuts, the amount designated for secondary education funding has fallen by nearly $3 billion. These shortfalls are even more abhorrent because they do not follow similar patterns in economic development or retreat (i.e. the California economy has not dropped 40% in the last 20 years). But that is another topic for another time. These institutions, facing such bleak prospects, are forced to turn to the few recourses they have available to them, each more drastic than the last.

The most obvious solution available to colleges is to cut costs. By reducing their financial need, the lowered amount of offered funding does not cut so deep into the school’s pockets. However, there is a trade-off, realized in a lack of services. These reductions manifest themselves in a variety of ways. Libraries cut hours or close altogether, “superfluous” student resources are removed. The number of class sections could be cut down, forcing professors and TAs into a larger student-to-faculty ratio. Administration also is considered expendable overhead. Wayne state university in Detroit cut 200 staff jobs to try and cover expenses. They were also forced to close an entire college, an extreme but not unrealistic example of how far schools must go in order to close the gap between spending and funding. This has repercussions that can be subtle, nuanced, but very apparent to students, who are faced with an absence of amenities that are quite essential to their function and productivity. Imagine telling a college student the library is closed at 5pm during finals. Or perhaps that the entire college has been wiped away or merged with another? Physics is difficult enough to master; what if the class or discussion ballooned to three times its normal size?

The second option is no more appealing than the first. Often schools will increase tuition and student-related fees to cover their margins. The New York Times reported that, from July 2004 to the same period 2005 the average public school tuition rose 7.1 percent. For comparison, private schools increased 5.9 percent, and inflation was 2.2 percent. The University of California Berkeley raised tuition 8 percent, from $6730 to $7434 a year in fees alone. Wayne State University shot up 18.5 %, and this was after the cuts described above were carried out. While the total amount required to attend a public school in your home state remains far below that of private schools - $15,566 to $32,000 – these constant, sometimes drastic increases are placing a huge burden on current and future students. With loan programs being trimmed as well, the financial obligation falls heavily upon the students themselves as well as their families. This translates into a continual widening of the gap between wealthy and low-income youth attending college. This under-representation could have untold consequences for our future society if a large proportion of minorities and low-income peoples feel unable to have schooling at their disposal for upward social and economic mobility (if there is any doubt to this, the events in France should stand out in sharp relief as a class battling against a glass ceiling. In that case it was mostly racial and ethnic; ours would be more socio-economic, but no less dramatic.).

The remaining solution, which to me is the most frightening, is the trend of schools to seek out private funding for their programs. Some of this money arrives in the form of research grants from private interests; others are private fundraisers pursued by presidents and deans for their colleges or departments; yet others manifest themselves as buildings, funded and erected with the money from corporate donors. It can be relatively innocuous: at the UCBerkeley College of Chemistry, the computer facility was sponsored by Chevron. But the problem lurking is where the limits exist on this donation process, and how much money one is willing to accept from them. The more money invested, the larger vested interest the corporation or other entity has in the school’s policies, and which could parlay into a larger role in the decision making process. Small computer labs are one thing – what if it were an entire college or department? Colleges are so starved for funds they cannot turn down this source of revenue, lest they be forced into more drastic cuts and fee hikes. All the same, this is beginning a trend of allowing private, especially corporate, influence in our schools. How much weight do you allow them to give? They could have unprecedented levels of control over the direction of the school’s courses, research, indeed their whole future. Do you suppose the Shell College of Chemistry would be willing to fund research on alternative fuel synthesis? Or that the Merck Department of Molecular Biology would look kindly upon a class in medical ethnobotany? These are idle curiosities at the moment, but could have grave implications on the freedom of our educational system if they do come to pass.

Allowing big businesses to dictate where our directions are headed in the minds of our scholars is bad news. These are the minds that are supposed to question; they are asked, even forced, to look at issues from new perspectives. Blocking even a remote aspect of the range of possibilities for inquiring minds to investigate, as they do in higher education, would be a major detriment to our society that might take years, even decades to realize and even longer to correct. Add in the loss of students due to potential fee hikes and the loss of facilities that come about from budget cuts, and the subsequent potential to our future is substantial, staggering even. Is it worth the risk to future developments, future innovations, further breakthroughs for our science and society to under-fund higher education now?

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