A Response to an Op-Ed by BGSU President Mary Ellen Mazey

Mary Ellen Mazey, the President of Bowling Green State University, recently contributed an op-ed to the Toledo Blade. The op-ed is titled “Affordable Higher Education Is Key to Ohio’s Future.”

In the op-ed, President Mazey addresses several realities that have been repeatedly highlighted over the last quarter century—that is, for as long as I have been a faculty member at Wright State University:

1. Ohio is still a major manufacturing state, but labor-intensive manufacturing has been in decline since the 1980s. The jobs of the future—even the near future–will be in sectors such as “advanced services, technology, and advanced manufacturing.” (When I first came to Ohio, agriculture and mining were included with manufacturing in any discussion of the economic mainstays of the state. The expansion of fracking operations has made up for some of the extended and extensive job losses in coal mining, but mining is no longer the major source of employment that it once was. Likewise, agriculture has become increasingly mechanized, and although Ohio still has more small family farms than many of the plains states, farms are being consolidated here just as they are elsewhere.)

2. Despite a fairly extensive system of public colleges and universities that serve almost every corner of the state, as well as a large number of private institutions, Ohio has long lagged behind other states in the percentage of the population that hold degrees at all levels—associates, baccalaureate, graduate, and professional.

President Mazey notes:

“The Lumina Foundation reports that Ohio will need 900,000 more adults with college certificates or degrees by 2025 to meet projected work-force demand. Georgetown University’s Center for Economic Research reports that 64 percent of Ohio jobs by 2020 will require post-secondary education.

“Yet only 37 percent of working-age Ohioans have college credentials. At current growth rates, we will reach only 44 percent by 2020. Ohio faces a talent gap in college graduates. It is essential that we increase the number of college graduates to meet the needs of the Buckeye State. . . .

“We are seeing gains. Over the past four years, the number of associate, bachelor’s, and master’s degrees awarded by Ohio’s public universities rose from 57,544 to 68,548 — a 19 percent increase.”

Even though all of this, except the most recent gains, is “old news,” the points are very much worth making, even repeatedly, especially to the general readership of a newspaper op-ed. Indeed, President Mazey very effectively closes the op-ed by emphasizing the value of public higher education to the state as a whole:

“At the same time, the state of Ohio needs to continue its critical investment in higher education. Ohioans must work together to ensure that a college education is more than a personal or family aspiration. It is a public good that is critical to our state’s long-term prosperity and economic vitality.”

She focuses on cost as a major issue and points out, correctly: “Ohio is already a national leader in controlling the cost of a college education. Our tuition and fees have increased at the slowest rate in the country over the past decade. In fact, Ohio is the only state where tuition and fees have grown more slowly than the rate of inflation.”

Where I think that she falls short of the mark is in explaining the reasons why Ohio is having a difficult time increasing the educational credentials of its workforce: specifically, the phrase “needs to continue its critical investment in higher education” is imprecise at best and could even be characterized as misleading.

She does not explain why it is that, despite such slow growth in tuition, cost remains an issue at Ohio colleges and universities. She sidesteps the overriding issue, which is the decline is state appropriations for public colleges and universities. Although Ohio has not reduced state support for higher education to the draconian degree that it has been and, in some cases, is still being reduced in neighboring states such as Pennsylvania, Indiana, Illinois, and Wisconsin, state support now accounts for only 10% to 20% of the revenues of the state’s public universities.

The pattern has been that the state cuts subsidies—either directly on a per-student basis or more indirectly by such means as emphasizing completion over enrollment. Legislators and administrators then look for increased “efficiencies” to make up for the lost revenues. Inevitably, the university administrations make up for the losses on the instructional side by hiring more adjunct faculty and more non-tenure-eligible instructors and lecturers.

No one bothers to highlight the ironies in subsequent discussions about why fewer students seem to be taught by tenured faculty or why tenured faculty are not producing a larger volume of innovative research. No one bother to highlight the ironies in the recurring proposals to mandate increased teaching loads for tenured faculty, which would incrementally increase the total number of courses taught by tenured faculty, but do so by making it even more difficult for those faculty to engage in meaningful research.

No one asks why the cuts are not being made on the administrative side, where most of the hiring has occurred over the last three to four decades.

In any case, in the absence of sufficient state support, we are left with gimmicks. President Mazey provides the following overview of the College Credit Plus (CCP) program, which greatly expands the state’s previous dual-enrollment options:

“One of the most effective ways to control and lower higher education costs is to reduce the amount of time it takes to complete a degree. The state’s new College Credit Plus Program has the potential to reshape higher education in Ohio, and to give high school students a significant leg up on their college careers.

“The program provides more options for students to complete a year or more of college classes while they are still in high school. Ohio high schools partner with a public or private university to offer the program.”

There is nothing inherently wrong with this basic concept; it has been around for a long time in all sorts of forms, from advanced placement courses to competency exams. But this specific proposal has several very dubious elements: it includes students from as low as the seventh grade, and it provides incentives for high school teachers to, in effect, do double-duty as teachers and as adjunct faculty. Since most of the courses taken by the participating students will be core-education (or general-education) courses, these provisions suggest that the impact of the core courses on the successful completion of more upper-level courses has been largely discounted by the designers of the program.

Nonetheless, the degrees being earned will continue to have value to employers only if the standards for the degrees have been maintained, which will clearly be more difficult as the oversight of the core-education courses becomes more dispersed. To avoid the issue of why students passing through the CCP are not succeeding in upper-level courses, it does not seem far-fetched that faculty be pressured to lower standards.

Moreover, in a previous post to this blog, I highlighted the paradox that even as Indiana’s colleges and universities have produced significantly more graduates, the percentage of the state’s workforce holding degrees has barely budged overall and in a fairly large number of locations has even declined. Like Indiana, Ohio has a fairly high level of out-of-state students. (When we were trying to determine the impact of legislative proposals designed to suppress voting by out-of-state students, we found that there are somewhere between 70,000 and 100,000 out-of-state students who would have been affected.) So, if more of those out-of-state students do not find employment within the state, it is possible that the CCP program may actually make the degrees awarded to many Ohio natives less attractive to employers than the degrees being earned by out-of-state students who return to their home states for employment.

President Mazey’s complete op-ed is available at:  http://www.toledoblade.com/Opinion/2015/05/10/Affordable-higher-education-is-key-to-Ohio-s-future.html#Y1PdFuzeY5tumFBU.99

 

2 thoughts on “A Response to an Op-Ed by BGSU President Mary Ellen Mazey

  1. I think your comments on CCP are important–unless degrees that include these courses are considered equivalent, then they will be junk degrees to those who receive them. I also agree with you about the urgent need to look at administrative bloat in Ohio universities (I live in the state and work in a collegiate ministry with grad students and faculty). Faculty, and even more grad students and adjuncts, are bearing the burden of cost controls while the administration and non-academic employment in the university continues to grow. For all the liberal rhetoric in the university world about social justice, it continues to amaze me how blind universities are to the social injustice in their midst, which contributes to making education inaccessible to many of our residents. As for state support, good luck on getting more in a state that already contends that taxes are too high!

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