“Thucydides” on Higher-Ed Funding

This “over the transom” piece is from a colleague who has chosen the pseudonym “Thucydides.” It owes a considerable debt—is in many respects an homage–to the legendary Chicago newspaper columnist Mike Royko.

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Moose McGillicuddy wiped down the bar at his tavern. Moose’s was a typical downtown Ohio bar. Politicians, college students, construction workers, and professors often leaned on the bar providing advice, seeking counsel, or just taking a break with a tall cold one.

This day was no different. The lunch crowd had disappeared and a couple tables looked ready to head back to work. Now that the university was back in session, there would be a good crowd of students that evening.

Then two frequent patrons walked in the door, well-known legislators. Already engaged in conversation, they sat down at the bar and contemplated the beer selection. “What’ll ya have,” Moose said genially and poured the men their choices.

“Moose,” they said, “we’ve been trying to find a way through this problem of  funding the local university and all the other ones. We think we’ve figured it out.”

Moose leaned over the bar, curious. He had heard many people – professors, students, businessmen, worry about the cost of tuition.

“We won’t fund the universities on the number of students they have but only if they produce-–we want course completions and degrees granted. We’ll just pay for those. Kind of like an assembly line. It worked for GM, it can work for OSU, UC, UT, and the rest.”

Moose looked thoughtful. “So, you are going to pay professors to pass students.” “Isn’t that bribing them? I’ve had some experience with that.” Moose smiled.  “Seems corrupt. Is that a good thing?”

The legislators looked puzzled. “Well, if you put it that way…” one began. “But, the professors would be too principled to just pass students to get the money,” the other cut in.

“Well, maybe most will,” Moose said, “but, over time, if you continue to underfund them, might they not want to make sure their colleges are funded well.  They would be in a position where passing students would ensure their funding. Isn’t that incentivizing production over quality. Shouldn’t education be most important? Should you put professors in that position?”

The legislators looked uncertain. “But,” Moose said, trying to be helpful, “what I really like about the plan is that it is social engineering on steroids – systematic social promotions that the college gets paid for. How could anybody be opposed to that? I had one of those myself in third grade.”

“Er, we’re supposed to be opposed to social engineering,” one legislator muttered, “we’re conservatives.” The other said, “yeah, we used to be for equality of opportunity, not equality of outcome. Whose idea was this anyway?”

“Moose,” one legislator tried to explain, “we are trying to increase the number of Ohioans with a bachelor’s degree. We’ll make these universities production centers.” Moose mulled that over for a minute. “Well, are you sure that will be the impact? If you fund only course completions and graduations, won’t the universities simply increase their admission requirements, allowing in only those students who are sure bets. There would be fewer students, fewer graduates,” Moose considered, with an eye on his business. “And what about the community colleges and regional campuses who transfer most of their students before they earn a degree? That’s what I did. Won’t they be tempted to track that student years down the line and award the degree, sort of posthumously, if the student happens to accumulate the right credits? That is pretty phony, isn’t it.”

The legislators looked like they’d been struck with a brick.

“Some of your buddies told me they learned about this at the ALEC conference. Or maybe the Lumina Foundation,” Moose said, filling the awkward silence, “meeting with all those big business and wealthy types who have not been tainted by any knowledge of colleges or higher ed. I hear you are working on this great College Credit Plus program, where students – all the way down to 12-year-olds in 7th grade – can take college courses from their school teachers. I didn’t know all those 7th and 8th grade teachers had PhDs. That’s just great.”

“Uh, Moose, they don’t,” one legislator said. “We really don’t want to talk about qualifications for teaching college courses,” the other said quickly, “we just don’t want to pay for it.”

“Ahh,” said Moose. “I see. That explains this competency testing idea using that out-of-state online corporation where all you have to do is take a standardized test, Western Governor’s, right? They don’t have any faculty at all, do they? College credit without having to bother with college at all. What a great idea?” Moose said, looking around to see if anyone caught the joke.

Trying to be positive, Moose continued helpfully: “It is going to be great to have all these young Ohioans with new degrees to help build our professions and our communities, doctors and lawyers, and such. I’ll bet you are looking forward to your first doctor visit with one of these young people who have benefited by all your good efforts.”

One legislator looked terrified. The other, dumbfounded, said, “Are you kidding? Have one of these kids examine me whose professors have been financially ‘incentivised” to pass them on. No way. I’m going out of state.”

Clearly disturbed by the impact of funding production over quality, the two legislators got up to leave. Moose, wanting to recapture their enthusiasm, asked about the need-based Ohio College Opportunity Grant.  “With the economy showing signs of life and the state surplus, there must be plenty of revenue to restore funding back to pre-recession levels right?” Trying not to look Moose in the eyes as they slipped toward the door. “Oh no, we badly need to provide an income tax cut with that money.” “Oh? The wealthy really need even more help,” Moose asked? But they were gone.

Moose wiped the bar. Looked in vain for a tip. And helped the next customer.

 

 

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