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Gina Nahai Headshot

What You Don't Know About Your College Education

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It gets worse.

You've been betrayed by the banks, the investment firms, the government. You skimp and borrow and try to send your kids to the best college they can get into; or you work the night shift at some bar and put yourself through college; or you've got a bachelor's but no job and so you decide to go graduate school, undergo another hundred thousand dollars more of debt, in hopes that another degree will increase your chances of success in the future.

You figure if you can't depend on Wall Street or on Uncle Bernie, you can put your faith in this country's temples of higher education, trust that institutions with vaunted names and golden pedigrees will deliver that which they've promised -- the pursuit of excellence, wisdom, and insight, the enrichment of society through the cultivation of the human spirit, first rate instruction and research. Every other foundation of society (public schools among them) may be going to hell; you know if you're good enough, try hard enough, and pay enough, you'll get your money's worth at one or another of this country's universities.

Well, times are tough. Private universities are concerned about the prospects of fundraising and the size of their endowments. They don't want to part with their highly paid directors who know how to develop relationships with highly generous alumni. They don't want to scale down their astronomical building and expansion plans. They certainly don't want to lower tuition rates or housing or other fees. So they sacrifice the interests of the most innocent and least protected segment of the academic community -- the students -- and trust that no one will know the difference.

It is a moral outrage that, for some time now, many colleges and universities around the United States have devoted their energies to enlarging the size of their endowments at the expense of the education and well being of their students. It is an even greater outrage that some of those universities are coping with the current economic crisis by shortchanging their students on the level and quality of instruction they were promised, by chipping away at student aid and scholarship funds, eliminating work study and assistant lectureships, creating new, "continuing education" degrees the main purpose of which is to feed the endowment by charging regular tuition but dispensing with less -- much less -- than what students in other faculties receive.

How do they do this while maintaining their stellar reputations and the constant stream of applicants knocking on the gates? They hire a few high profile professors, a Nobel Prize winner or two. They admit some PHD students that they will coddle and nurture for the next thousand years, letting them linger at the school tuition-free, giving them assistant lectureships that provide teaching experience should they ever decide to leave the school and teach somewhere else. They put all that on their website.

Then they go back to the real world and tell their students there will be no more TAships or ALships or any other way for them to subsidize their education. They give the "cash cow" department as small a budget as possible, eliminating the possibility that the students might benefit from any of those grand and alluring "extra's" the university website flaunts so brazenly. They fire their most experienced, and sometimes their best, faculty (those who don't have tenure or some kind of contract), fill those spots with new hires for a fraction of the older ones' salaries. They hire everyone part-time, so they won't be eligible for benefits. They actually instruct those instructors not to work too hard, or too many hours -- to avoid any possible claim to benefits.

Ask the deans and directors of these colleges (I have) if they feel the slightest smidgen of guilt over using the school's good reputations to shortchange students who will have to pay for their degree with years of hard work and sacrifice, and they will look at you like you're an imbecile. Ask them if it's fair for the college to charge everyone equal tuition but reserve its resources only for a select few of the students, and they will pretend they haven't heard the question.

Meanwhile, students who have spent time and money on the promised degree feel they have invested too much to walk away or start over somewhere else.

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