Friday, March 30, 2012

The Funding Crisis in Higher Education

It is no secret that (public and non-profit) higher education across the country is facing a funding crisis right now. Ever since I became a student at UW we’ve been staring down double-digit tuition increases every year. Last year both programs I am enrolled in faced being merged into other schools, and the Information School responded by making the MLIS program self-sustaining, rather than state-funded, which resulted in substantial tuition increases for in-state students (though not for out-of-state). In the past week or so, I’ve come across a variety of pieces that touch on this funding crisis, and I thought I would pull them together for the Bookaneers. Many of us work or plan to work in academic settings, and though this is not strictly library-related, I think it is imperative for librarians to have a broader understanding of what is happening in higher education.

Do college professors work hard enough?” Last Friday the Washington Post ran this editorial (watch out for that paywall), which, as the title suggests, argues that college professors are overpaid relative to the amount of work they do. David C. Levy (no relation to the iSchool’s esteemed professor), writes that

Though faculty salaries now mirror those of most upper-middle-class Americans working 40 hours for 50 weeks, they continue to pay for teaching time of nine to 15 hours per week for 30 weeks, making possible a month-long winter break, a week off in the spring and a summer vacation from mid-May until September.

Many people have rebutted Levy’s piece for being essentially a straw man argument based on anecdotal or inaccurate evidence, and I don’t find it necessary to address his points individually. At the very least, we can all see the flaw in the argument that 15 hours per week of time spent in the classroom is equivalent to 15 hours of work per week. The reason that I am highlighting Levy’s piece, though he completely misidentifies the root causes, is that he is striking at some very serious problems in higher education.

The funding crisis and rising tuition costs are partly based on reduced state and federal funding. The irony of publically subsidized education is that in and after recessions more people want to go back to school just as governments with fewer tax revenues are reducing funding for public services. This puts a substantial squeeze on higher education institutions, especially those like community colleges that view part of their mission as worker retraining.

This post at Confessions of a Community College Dean also identifies some structural elements to rising costs in higher education. He argues that institutions are becoming less productive because they are not adapting to technological and economic advances. As we adopt better and better technologies, and use them to radically change the way we do business and live our lives, higher education has not necessarily taken advantage of these tools. (I’m wildly paraphrasing, but I think that is his basic argument.) The writer recognizes that this is a long-term problem with a long-term solution, and in the short run it is very difficult to address.

Here are just a couple of the short-term (and short-sighted) attempts to address this problem recently:

The New York Times this morning is reporting on a plan at Santa Monica Community College in California to create a two-tiered tuition structure. In response to complaints that required courses are filling up too quickly, the college is planning to create additional sections of the courses, and charge a higher tuition for those sections. Currently, community college courses cost $36/credit hour; the additional sections will cost $180/credit hour. The Times does a good job of walking through the pros and the cons of this plan. Essentially, the higher price would cover the college’s cost of providing the additional sections (the lower price is state-subsidized), and it would enable more students to get the classes they need to complete their degrees or to transfer to a four-year college. However, the higher tuition would in effect prevent low-income students from enrolling in the additional sections, though they have no priority in the regularly priced classes. As access to education is one of the primary missions of community colleges, this raises some serious questions about equity and fairness.

The second example I have recently come across is in Canada. Tamara Shepherd, a professor at Concordia University, writes on the Culture, Digitally blog about a student strike in Quebec:

Students have been on what is so far a six-week strike against the Quebec Liberal government’s proposal to increase tuition fees by 75% as part of a widespread privatizing of post-secondary education. Over 200,000 Quebec students out of a total of around 300,000 have joined the “strike,” which has entailed not attending classes, and holding public demonstrations.

That whole paragraph is pretty mind-blowing, and I’m surprised that I haven’t heard about this before. Here is an excerpt from a statement by Concordia professors, who largely support the strike:

The government’s plan is an attempt to break Quebec’s hard won social contract on education. The proposed 75 percent increase in tuition fees will undermine the accessibility of higher education. This is not merely a question of lost earning power for those who cannot afford to attend university. Universities create social, entrepreneurial, artistic, political and scientific networks that contribute to the productivity of our society. When access to university is restricted, society as a whole loses because these productive networks are reduced in size and diversity. Further, since the tuition hike will disproportionately affect women, people of color, and other marginalized groups who consistently earn less, the hike will worsen the economic and social stratification that Quebec society opposes.

I don’t think that I can more eloquently or succinctly express why I think these kinds of drastic tuition hikes and changes in access to higher education are disturbing, counterproductive, and could have potentially long-term negative effects on society.

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