Look for “Alternatives” in the Right Places


grad_moneyThis post is in response to a comment on my previous post that rightly pointed out that Wesley Coopersmith, the author of an article in U.S. News and World Report, is a millennial searching for meaningful “alternatives” to the current, unsustainable cost of getting a university education. The commenter asked whether we should not be offering alternatives, rather than simply dismissing out of hand the alternatives that Coopersmith is offering for consideration. I might have posted this piece simply as a response to that comment, but I think that the issue is important enough and I feel strongly enough about my response on it that I am presenting it as a separate post to insure that it gets somewhat broader attention.

Alternatives to the current model are absolutely required, but the starting place is in beginning to reverse some of the destructive ideas that have undermined affordability, access and the quality of education, not to test other destructive ideas coming from the same sources of “innovation” and “reform.”

Here are two major changes that would have a very substantial impact.

First, start to restore some of the 50%-60% decline in state subsidies to public higher ed that have occurred in just the last 25 years. In 1980, the state of Ohio covered more than 60% of the cost of attending its public colleges and universities; that support now amounts to about 10% to 20% of the cost at most of our institutions. The lost subsidy has also very clearly gone to support tax cuts for the most affluent and for corporations–while support for local school districts and to local governments have been slashed even more drastically than that to higher ed. Fiscal choices have consistently been framed as fiscal necessities, but all sorts of data clearly demonstrate that there has been a very marked ideological predisposition to reduce funding for public institutions–unless, of course, they are being “privatized,” which most voters mistakenly believe means that they are no longer being taxpayer supported.

Second, establish a proportionate distribution of institutional revenue between administration and administrative support and instruction and instructional support. Again, all sorts of data demonstrate that a massive shift in institutional priorities has occurred over the last 25-40 years. A massive increase in full-time, very well-compensated, and bureaucratically entrenched administrators has occurred simultaneously with a massive increase in part-time, at-will, and terribly underpaid faculty.

All of the innovations mentioned in Coopersmith’s article show the extensive reach of the endlessly rehashed talking points of the “reformers” and “innovators.” But none of those “innovations” will improve access, affordability, or the quality of education without sacrificing more access, affordability, or quality of education in the process.

The “reformers” and the “innovators” never want the soul-searching for solutions to begin with the problems that they themselves have largely created. Those problems are always framed as “inescapable realities.”

Everyone needs to challenge those assumption–to ask some very basic questions.

For instance, how is it that in 1980, when the U.S. GDP was $12.5 trillion, we could afford to support public higher education at three to four times the level that we are now,when the GDP is $17.4 trillion? The number of the “ultra-wealthy” has continued to climb along with the GDP; so inflation clearly has not eroded all of those economic gains.

Likewise, how is it that the “business model” being followed almost universally across our institutions allows for an ever-expanding layer of middle management, when corporate America has actually been reducing those positions and costs since the beginning of de-industrialization in the late 1970s? What exactly is the “corporate model” that is being followed by the administrations of our institutions? I would suggest that the corporatizers are using private-sector jargon to justify the sort of burgeoning bureaucracy that corporate-friendly politicians consistently deride as an “inefficient” characteristic of the public sector. In effect, we are getting the opposite result from that which the corporatizers keep promising us–and the impact of that disjunction is becoming exponentially, rather than incrementally, more difficult to accommodate.


3 thoughts on “Look for “Alternatives” in the Right Places

  1. Thank you Martin for opening up the issues. The question i would ask, at this point, is, given your analysis, what is the course of action which needs to be taken to move the game forward beyond carefully articulating the issues you have identified, realizing that not only has the economics changed, but both The Academy as an institution as has both the professorate and the students.

    While the issue of funding and offering baccalaureate programs is the center here, the faculty (those clearly on tenure track and post tenure review move themselves forward through their research and publishing, semi-separated for their own career and economic well-being from these issues. Those not on the tenure path, or faculty “at will” as in the early days of union organization find that they are fungible and exchangeable.

    What would happen, as with the Viet Nam War, the faculty from every public flagship university across the US held a teach-in and ongoing movements in support of the University of Wisconsin and developed collaborative actions other than the rather tepid responses rapidly fading quicker than the impact factor of a just published scholarly article?

    I believe that we can list a series of very actionable items that could be initiated. It only took 30 years for the administrators (librarians) of the small, liberal arts colleges to launch Lever, open access “platinum” (no fees for readers or authors) publishing. And there are growing consortia for collaboration for more than buying printing ink. But it requires collective action to reunite a very divided higher education community, particularly the faculty.

    Perhaps we need to be reminded what a collective will has wrought. Think of the Manhattan Project (maybe not so good?), putting a man on the moon, or just being inspired by the muck rakers such as Upton Sinclair?
    Being from Kentucky, one is reminded of its state’s motto.

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