OP-ED | Punting on Higher Education
There’s nothing more American than punting. Why suffer through pain today if you can just kick it away and make it someone else’s problem tomorrow?
There’s a lot of hand-wringing lately about government pushing problems off to the future, and, as the growing national debt illustrates, there’s absolutely something to that. But we’ve managed to back ourselves into such a tight corner on debt, deficits, and taxes that many of the actions we’re willing take to help fix the immediate financial crunch would mean we passed the buck in other areas, often with even worse consequences.
Here’s the thing about government debt and budget deficits: both are scary, but not as potentially damaging as some of the things that will end up happening — and have happened already — if we keep on underfunding higher education to close budget gaps.
Higher education funding is a mass of contradictions lately. On the one hand, the governor wants to build up the University of Connecticut by investing $1.5 billion, largely on science, technology, engineering and math (STEM). That, combined with investments in biomedical research companies near the UConn Health Center, seems like a real boost for the state’s flagship university. But on the other hand, the state university system and community colleges are often targets of rescissions and budget cuts. Tuition may rise by as much as 5 percent at the state university system next year — just the latest in a worrisome trend of budget cuts and tuition hikes.
The students who can manage to get past the rising financial barrier are coming to college with fewer and fewer skills. If you ever talk with college and university faculty you’ll probably end up talking about students and all of their woeful lacks at some point. This is normal. But the current decline in writing and critical thinking skills has a lot of faculty scratching their heads even more than usual, wondering what is going on in high schools these days. A piece published on a Washington Post blog recently suggested a culprit: No Child Left Behind. This cumbersome law is an expression of a culture that demands a focus on testing above all else, and this is part of the problem. Some of the things that the Malloy administration tried to target last year, such as deadbeat teachers, are a small piece of the problem as well. But the real problems have to do with culture, the low value we place on education, small-minded local boards, and a constant lack of resources, materials, and morale. We don’t want to address any of that, we kick it on down the road, and so students enter college unable to write.
All of this is happening in a world where college is becoming more and more of a necessity. Apparently some basic entry-level jobs, like receptionists and file clerks, now require a college degree. The BA has largely taken the place of the high school diploma, with one crucial difference: you have to pay for a BA. Higher education is not free. Budget cuts and our refusal to move past a push-button, test-based approach to education fixes means that to get any kind of useful education, students have to come up with tuition money. Student debt is practically mandatory. The buck has neatly been passed, then, to the very people we’re hoping will revive the economy with their entrepreneurial spirit and energy: young college grads.
There’s an obvious solution to all of this, but I suspect if we ever really decide to support our students we’ll try to take the money out of the salaries of their professors first. This is a bad idea. World-class faculty don’t work for peanuts, nor should they. Cutting the money available for salaries means fewer faculty, which means larger class sizes, less individual help, fewer other support mechanisms . . . and suddenly we have students going into grad school who can’t write a coherent sentence. Great.
At some point we’re going to have to make a choice. We can take the pain now, raise taxes, and try to ease the actual debt burden on the young by making college more accessible, or we can focus on lower taxes, let higher education wither on the vine, and hope the economy makes up the rest.
Or we could punt, and hope future generations are braver than we are.
Susan Bigelow is an award-winning columnist and the founder of CTLocalPolitics. She lives in Enfield with her wife and their cats.