Higher education was my birthright, not because of any privilege other than being born in New York City where a public university education was free from 1847 until 1975. That birthright was taken from me before I was old enough to enjoy it. Still, when I entered college in 1975, tuition was affordable. In the State University of New York, where I went on to study, tuition and fees roughly totaled $700 a year. Much of it was offset by programs like TAP, which then maxed out at $1,500, and Regent’s Scholarships, where my lackluster score of 177 out of a possible 300 earned me a large enough award to essentially wipe out my tuition. This was the progressive dream, the great leveler, the opportunity for everyone to share the collective knowledge base that our societies had built up over the centuries.
Last week President Obama visited Buffalo to use the University at Buffalo as a backdrop to address the soaring cost of higher education. Today’s SUNY students, if they can cobble together a scheme to pay for their education, often graduate with debts that will take decades to pay off. Studies show that this crippling debt often forces them to abandon career dreams, forgo public service jobs, and delay or give up on buying a house, all while raising stress and depression levels and even lowering their chances of marrying.
The frustrating thing about Obama’s visit is, while he addressed the problem, the cause seemed to have eluded him. The math is not fuzzy here, Mr. President. A 2012 study by two Federal Reserve economists documented the relationship between dwindling government support of higher education and increasing tuition. Such support decreased nationwide from covering 70.7 percent of operating expenses at public institutions in 2000, to covering only 57.1 percent in 2011. This amounts, according to the authors, to a 21 percent cut in per pupil public funding despite the influx of federal recovery money following as a result of the fiscal crisis of 2008.
Initially, colleges and universities absorbed almost all of the the cuts, eventually raising tuition more significantly during the last four years of the study as the fiscal crisis set in. Interestingly, tuition still increased at noticeably lower percentage rates than the aid cuts.
One way colleges and universities absorbed state aid cuts is by cutting, and in many cases, decimating academic programs, replacing retiring professors with an exploited overworked contingent “part time” workforce where in many cases workers barely earn minimum wage after calculating grading, prep, course material research, and meeting hours. This trend, which goes back three decades, has transformed academic institutions from environments where ideas were born and nurtured and intellects exercised and developed, into places where ideas are flattened, packaged, and “delivered” on the cheap.
This is the corporate mold for higher education—a system where vendors sell “deliverable” education products. They peddle their snake oil branded as “reform,” claiming that integrating technology will cut costs and improve education. The reality is a bit shadier. Public education represents a huge chunk of economic activity where corporations are not getting their profit skim. The “public-private” partnerships touted by the “reformers” address that corporate problem, creating mechanisms to “deliver” mass-produced education while also delivering tuition dollars to Wall Street. The austerity-induced tuition spikes offer the perfect rationale, ironically, not to restore funding to public education, but to further decimate it with “efficient,” “high-tech” “reforms.”
The corporate product underlying this delivery system is the “MOOC” (Massive Open Online Course). It works like this: MOOC vendors contract with elite institutions such as Harvard to teach real college classes to privileged students. In many cases they’ll employ the traditional Socratic method of participatory discussion. No doubt this will be an excellent class—for those present in the classroom. The whole experience will be recorded by the MOOC vendors who will deliver the course virtually to the rest of the college world where less fortunate students will watch the elite students participate.
Academic workers, either at decimated campuses or online, will administer assessment tools and, in the best cases, facilitate a scripted discussion. In the worst cases there are no such workers. What we get is a sort of apartheid where working and middle-class students pay to watch the privileged learn in the sort of dynamic, interactive classrooms that once defined a good public liberal arts education. This is not acceptable, Mr. President.
Online delivery systems have opened up a world of data to over a billion netizens, including most readers of this column. The problem is that this information is delivered within an electronic ecosystem of distractions and interruptions, were viewers are conditioned to surf rather than concentrate or engage in deep reading or thinking. The result is that even the select information snippets and factoids that the MOOCS and other online education technologies deliver seldom get the mental reflection and contemplation needed to move them from short-term to long-term memory. For this, one needs to participate in a class rather than simply interact as a voyeur. Perhaps this is why graduates of virtual colleges and universities tend to be less successful in attaining their life goals. It’s because they never actually went to college despite the huge amount of time spent and debt accrued in procuring their online diplomas.
So far, all we’ve seen from such “reform” is an overpriced, second-class education. Lost in the delivery of testable factoids is the basic function of higher education, which is not solely to train students in basic skills, but to nurture the creation of knowledge, of creative and critical thinking and to offer an alternative to the clutter of the information torrent rather than become just another product within.
Obama’s visit to Buffalo comes at a time when, despite the Wall Street Recovery and improving national economy, the situation is becoming more dire for public higher education. In the year since the study by the Fed’s economists, state and local support for America’s colleges, universities, and their students suffered the largest annual cut in 50 years, plummeting 7.6 percent.
During the past five years Arizona and New Hampshire set a new low bar, each slashing higher education investments by roughly 50 percent, with a total of 36 states cutting investment by at least 22 percent. I use the term “investment” purposefully, as numerous credible studies document how such education expenditures multiply themselves with a return of economic growth and future tax revenues. Critical and creative thinking has traditionally laid the foundation for “American ingenuity.” Austerity puts this economic engine in reverse, eventually leading to more austerity and more social destruction.
Ultimately, if the president wanted to understand why the cost of attending college has been skyrocketing, he didn’t have look beyond the podium. Politicians across the country have been balancing their budgets on the backs of colleges and universities, passing the ensuing economic and social damage on to future administrations and generations.
Dr. Michael I. Niman is a professor of journalism and media studies at SUNY Buffalo State. His previous columns are at artvoice.com, archived at www.mediastudy.com, and available globally through syndication.
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