Wednesday, April 01, 2009

The college caste system

Over at Salon, Andy Kroll, a student at the University of Michigan, has an excellent piece on a rarely talked-about consequence of the rising costs of attending a four-year public or private college in the United States -- that our college campuses are increasingly becoming "gated communities" of privilege for those lucky enough to have the means (or merit or need-based assistance) to attend them.

Kroll interviewed several students either already attending the University Michigan or about-to-graduate high school seniors who have either given up the prospect of heading off to Ann Arbor because they simply cannot afford it. And these are Michigan residents who cannot piece together the approximately $6,125 per year for tuition, a number that does include room and board. At that price, an education at the University of Michigan is as close to as steal as there is in higher education -- the Ann Arbor campus is perenially ranked as one of the top five public universities in the country (defined as those offering a full range of degree programs, including Ph.Ds, dental, medical and other professional schools, etc.). To read how many students cannot afford to attend their state's flagship university is truly heartbreaking.

I've written several pieces on what I believe are the most pressing problems in higher education. You can find the most recent one, "Is higher education to big to fail," by clicking here. You'll see several more links in that post taking you to pieces on everything from the ridiculousness of how professors are "evaluated" at my university to my suggestion that we should consider making public universities accessible to all qualified students by eliminating tuition. As the discrepancies continue to mount between those who are able to attend college and those who are not, the consequences will reverberate on multiple levels. The high cost of attending college has already made professors much more beholden to their students demands than ever before. More and more, professors are simply teaching to the test so that their students can do well, make their A or, in rare cases, a B, and go away happy. At $45,000 per year, students at my institution are under the impression that they call the shots, and academic administrators, for all their insistence that professors are the lifeblood of the university, have every incentive to make their "customers" -- yep, that's what they're called now -- happy. Another consquence of smaller budgets and potentially smaller student bodies will be the increasing "professionalization" of the undergraduate curriculum. The first programs to go in most budget cuts are music, art, performance, the humanities and the less "relevant" social sciences, such as anthropology and sociology. At these prices, students want their degrees to have "value," and schooling them on the history of Eastern and Western civilization, music appreciation, philosophy or who was stomping around what continent when don't always provide the means and ends relationship they want from their classes. As much as I hate this trend, who can blame them? It is, after all, much easier to buy books and attend concerts when you have a job.


Stephen Meli said...

The reason that college tuition costs so much is because of the availability of student loans. The government programs (Sallie Mae, FAFSA, etc...) that subsidize student loans give kids the ability to go to virtually any college they want as long as they are willing to go into debt. Our exuberance for higher education has inhibited rational solutions for the problem of rising costs. There was a time when going to college did not require the massive amounts of debt that students currently take on.

Elimination of student loans will mean that less kids will go to college, yes. But it also means that colleges will be forced to bring down the price of tuition in order to fill their classrooms. Budget cuts and tough choices are necessary. Eventually, college prices will come down enough so that you do not need to go into massive amounts of debt to pay for a useless humanities degree ( the irony isn't lost on me).

Students will be forced to have more realistic expectations when it comes to college admissions and those students who cannot afford an expensive school should go to a trade school or directly enter the workforce where they can be more productive.

The higher college tuition rises, the more the federal government will shell out for student loans and the deeper that each individual student will fall into debt. This is unsustainable since eventually the cost of the loan with interest will exceed the benefit of going to a good school.

As per usual Dr. Ivers, the answer lies in freedom.


Jeremy said...

The first programs to go in most budget cuts are music, art, performance, the humanities and the less "relevant" social sciences, such as anthropology and sociology.

Oh? Perhaps you didn't see this.

The University of Florida is the Land and Sea Grant University in Florida and a member of the Association of American Universities (a nonprofit association of 60 U.S. and two Canadian preeminent public and private research universities). The University of Florida is also designated as the ‘flagship university’ in the State.

So how does a University like this approach fundamental science when faced with budgetary cuts?

The College of Liberal Arts and Sciences announced its plans to cut 10% from its budget. It targeted three departments: Communication Sciences and Disorders; Religion; and Geology. These three departments will take a far larger cut than 10% in order to ‘preserve’ the integrity of other departments. In an era of ‘green technology’, environmental awareness, the need for natural resource management, global climate change and the need to preserve access to freshwater, the thought of decimating a Geology Department borders on insanity. This is especially true of a flagship university that sits about 150 feet above sea level in a state where the top three revenue generators are, in order, tourism, agriculture and mining.