On Thursday night CNN will air Ivory Tower, a documentary that explores the value of a college education. As tuition rates rise faster than inflation, with sticker price from the most elite private colleges costing upwards of $60,000 per year and elite public schools tuition and fees not far behind, higher education is subject to increased scrutiny. As student loan debt passed $1 trillion, the film asks whether a college degree is worth the cost. Moreover, is the attainment of a college degree becoming increasingly improbable for far too many Americans?
This is an important conversation, akin to the debate around K-12 public education over the past decade. Documentaries such as Waiting for Superman evoked a range of emotion from our citizenry. Productive debate about an essential public good is a marker of democratic engagement. The problem is that, all too often, informed and respectful discussion is lost in the media frenzy to be the first to uncover a possible crisis. The increased media attention, if focused on with integrity, will provide us a chance to have a national conversation about access, affordability and the purpose of higher education. How can we make public higher education more affordable? What can we do to turn the tide so that more students are granted access? How might we develop the 21st century version of Land Grant colleges, the GI Bill and the Community College system?
In providing funding for public higher education, our elected leaders and the citizens who voted them into office have broadly agreed that our citizenry benefits when young adults have the chance to study- to devleop expertise, to cultivate passion for discovery and to learn how to be effective citizen leaders. In waves of support over the past 175 years, the narrative of our nation has included the commitment to providing access to higher education. In a report published in May 2014 the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, documented state budget funding patterns. In recent years, as a result of federal spending on other national priorities and persistent budget shortfalls, state spending on higher educaiton has fallen in almost every state in the country. State spending for higher education remains well below pre-2008 recession levels. After adjusting for inflation, 48 states (excluding Alaska and North Dakota) are spending less per student than they did before the recession. On average, states are spending 23 percent less per student than before the recession. The report revealed that, after adjusting for inflation, public colleges and universities have increased tuition an average of 28 percent since the 2007-08 academic years. Funding cuts force public colleges to cut services which usually means increasing class size and firing faculty, raising tuition to cover the loss, or a combination of both. CNN's Ivory Tower will illustrate the massive tuition increase and subsequent student debt. The facts are alarming. They will send a ripple of concern across the landscape of stakeholders, namely, soon to be college students and their parents.
The pressure to graduate more students in less time has emerged as a daily motivator and primary goal for many college leaders. Churning out degrees is not a prescription for a healthy citizenry. Just because a student has a college degree does not mean she/he has developed the skill set to work effectively in communities over her/his lifepsan. Completing many classes over a brief period of time does not allow students to gradually learn more in-depth critical thinking skills. When we decrease funding for public higher education and rush our young people through college, we decrease the opportunities for informed decision making to occur among our future leaders.
Public opinion of the mission of higher education is increasingly perceived as a market-driven institution existing for the economic benefit of the individual, the upward mobility of a social class and in turn further sedimentation of the class hierarchy. The question all too often pondered, "college graduate or plumber," "mechanic or college," relegates college to a job factory. If post-graduate job attainment is the sole purpose of college, then higher education is not worth the investment. Further, the Institution is abandoning its historic public mission in order to console an anxious generation of students.
In a recently published book, Privatization and the Public Good: Public Universities in the Balance, the author, Matthew Lambert, urges readers to contemplate whether higher education is a public good or a private benefit to the individual. Moreover, Lambert concludes, our national response to this question will impact generations to follow. Lambert's extensive research, including interviews of hundreds of elected public servants, revealed that our lawmakers are sympathetic to the needs of higher education, yet financial priorities find lawmakers supporting essential public needs such as Medicare, funding prisons and K-12 education. Ironically, lawmakers often remarked that where other public essentials have no other means of revenue, colleges and univeristies can raise tuition to balance their budget.
The essence of a good college education is in our citizens' ability to contemplate what will be best for our society in the decades to come, with as much objectivity as good research practice and human nature allows. As we grapple with how to decrease time in school and on campus, our nation as a whole is in need of people who are practiced at compromise with civility and of discussion with respectful deliberation. These civic skills must be taught in our colleges and universities.
We must demand a national dialogue about our colleges and universities reaffirming our commitment to educating for civic engagement. The mechanism by which active citizens gain their skills and abilities to collaborate with civility, is, in the University setting, the sum of parts of outreach, research, scholarship, service, advocacy, and collective community problem solving. This is not easily accomplished with larger classes, fewer professors, pressure to graduate more students in less time and the elimination of reflection with and among peers.
Wherein there is value in distance learning for the cultivation of skill set and knowledge delivery, students ability to develop civic skills answers why college and universities exist in real space and not cyber space. It highlights human connection, cultivation of the human ability to empathize. If we are to become a more effective citizenry, then we must demand our colleges and universities provide the time and the space to practice civility.
The next great solution to decades long "incurables" will be rooted in the University a result of debate and discussion, dialogue and understanding, compromise and civility, person to person, face to face, over time.