Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Dream, or Nightmare?

Time to get back to political wrangling again...bear with me...

Last week, U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings made a speech in which she called for a collegiate database which would track students' academic progress and university accountability. She, like many politicians, is alarmed by rising costs of higher education, claiming "we have sold the dream of college, and more and more it's unattainable." To combat this perceived unattainability, she proposes a plan similar to the HIGHLY controversial No Child Left Behind (of which she was a chief architect) that would "provide the same information to consumers that parents receive for their children's elementary and secondary schools." She said: "The purpose here is to figure out how to have better information, better understanding about higher education in America as a consumer good."

Well now. Let me roll up my sleeves and, as a duly-appointed member of the higher education faculty, prepare to kick the shit out of Ms. Spellings and her whacko, Big Brother ideas.

The idea of college affordability is a noble one. Societally we claim to put a high priority on education, especially as the labor-intensive jobs of our parents & grandparents either disappear or move out of the country. Financially, though, that priority is not reflected in terms of real dollars. Say what you will about "waste" in the university (and lots of people do), the fact is that there's only so much belt-tightening that can be done. Tax cuts have been VERY popular in the last 25 years or so, but when taxes are cut there is simply less money coming in to government coffers. Less money means SOMETHING has to give, and after all of the fat gets cut away from a budget, eventually whole items start to disappear. Put it terms of your own income: if you "cut" 25% from your $1,000 paycheck, you can probably whittle away at some of the extravagances you've been enjoying. You can shop at TJ Maxx instead of LL Bean, or buy Yellow Tail instead of Robert Mondavi. Take that $750 and cut it some MORE, though, and KEEP cutting it (the way our taxes have been cut) and eventually you don't buy new clothes at ALL anymore. Eventually you need to say that drinking wine is itself a luxury that can no longer be afforded. When your personal income is cut, it's a bad thing and you fight it tooth & nail. When your taxes are cut (which is, after all, the government's income), you cheer & applaud without realizing that, hey, if you still WANT the stuff those tax dollars used to buy, you now have to pay for it yourself. In that light, tax cuts simply shift the burden of purchase onto individuals...some of whom can afford it and some cannot.

Affordable college, then: Ms. Spellings tries hard to make that financial accountability sound good for parents who are cringing at skyrocketing tuition costs, but it's the very tax cuts of her conservative administration that are robbing state coffers of money that might go to colleges. It's a political soundbite that has no substance, much the same as "selling the dream of college" in the first place. Folks, college costs money. We don't sell the dream of a Hummer in every garage, because we understand that Hummers are for people who can afford them. Well...so it is with college. It's for people who can afford it. If that sounds classist or elitist, consider what tax cuts are doing: they're making it so that colleges can only continue to operate by raising tuition costs by double-digit percentages every year. Eventually, the only people who'll go to college will be those whose parents drive Hummers. Hmmm...THAT sounds classist to me!

It's the collective power of money that really has muscle. Individually, two parents shoulder a heavy burden to send one child to college. Collectively, though...well, consider these (VERY) basic numbers. If I work from the premise that there are 5 million taxpayers in Michigan, and that the average tuition & board cost at a mid-sized public university here is $15,000 per year, I can tack on $100 to the tax bill of all 5 million of those people and come up with $500 million. Divide that by that average tuition cost, and I see that I can send 33,300 students to college. In a single year. That's nearly double the total enrollment at my university. Hell, at a reasonable 4.5%, I'm generating an additional $22,500,000 a year in interest alone! That's not to say that ALL that money would go to student tuition costs, or that it would go to pay the entire bill of those students. Cut it in half, and you'll STILL save parents a gigantic financial headache, and now you've sent 66 THOUSAND kids to college. Of course, when you send that many new people you have to build new dorms, and classrooms, and hire new faculty...and gee, all of that stuff creates new jobs! Such a small investment from ALL of us, paying for something we seem to all agree is pretty important anyway, and a lot of the depressed Michigan economy evaporates like so much April snow.

When it comes to a plan similar to No Child Left Behind being implemented at the university level, the only children I see getting left behind are the ones who most need our help. But Ms. Spellings doesn't really understand that, because she's not a teacher. That's right. When I think of someone being the U.S. Secretary of Education, I dream of someone who's not only brilliant, but someone who's BEEN IN A CLASSROOM. Someone who knows how to improve accountability on all levels, and not just in terms of the bottom line. Instead, who do we have? We have Margaret Spellings, who holds a Bachelors Degree...in political science. Yes, the person who is charged with directing the education policy of the United States of America is...a politician, whose only qualification seems to be that she's ALWAYS held a job like this. In Texas. Under Governor Bush. The U.S. Secretary of Education ought to be someone with a doctorate, who has taught (and possibly administrated) for 20 years, who knows what teachers and students need, and how to move policy in that direction. Instead we have a woman who helped craft Texas into a state that ranks 49th in verbal SAT scores and 46th in math. (http://www.window.state.tx.us/comptrol/wwstand/wws0512ed/)

College is not a business, and education is not a consumer commodity to be bought and sold. University faculty are the last people many of our not-so-childish young adults will encounter in a classroom setting before they break through into true adulthood. We take that encounter very seriously, and we try to make sure that our students are not only well-educated, but also are solid thinkers who will know how to solve problems and direct the future of this country. Right now the problem is the affordability of that education...and Margaret Spellings sure ain't the solution.


Blogger Lisa said...

I couldn't agree more. I would more than willingly cough up a bit more tax money to ensure that my child can get the education that I feel he deserves. Hell, I'd pay more tax money to make sure that college is attainable for many other children as well.

The only bitch of it all?

I'm ready for Mike's comment at this:

Why is that those of us who may be college educated don't have a snowball's chance in hell of making a commensurate salary in line with our degree?

We fight tooth and nail to get jobs that those without college degrees can land and often times do.

Ah, the irony.

11:26 AM  
Blogger Kim said...

College is not a business, however, it must be run by a business model. Public colleges deal with the necessary evil of government accountability, no matter how little said government funds that college. For that reason alone, College Voodoo Economics have been all the rage since I was a young dewy-eyed Chippewa...

1:35 PM  
Blogger Mike said...

awesome post

you don't sound elitist at all, quite the opposite

thanks for the inspiration lisa, you're on.

it's all class warfare, baby

7:17 PM  
Blogger Steph said...

amen, scott.

your perspective on taxes is so completely absent out here in the wild west. (ok, heartland.) it's getting SO old, having to listen to the same witless, crusted-over republicans accuse their democratic challengers simply by saying, "so-and-so wants to RAISE YOUR TAXES!" and people's eyes glaze over and they murmur, "oooooh, baaad..." and go on paying sales tax on their food and living with pro-business farm subsidies and sending their children to lousy public schools (that may or may not teach real biology), but by god, at least their taxes are low.


7:46 AM  
Blogger Suze said...

hey, there, found this blog via sweet water journal and i couldn't agree more. i come from a family of educators, both at the pre-college and college level, and as a languishing gradual student myself, i know a lot about the unfortunate politics of public universities. i could go on (and on and on) about this topic, but i won't. i'll just say this: it's a huge mistake to assume colleges can be run as efficiently on the business/corporate model with good results (i.e. well-educated graduates and well-compensated employees with creative freedom). the public should STOP expecting schools and colleges and universities to run well with tight budgets and START expecting that the cost of properly funding education will pay off in the long run.

end of rant.

1:41 PM  

Post a Comment

<< Home