Higher Ed needs more cash, not more catchwords



California’s public higher education systems are plagued by years of funding cuts. Everyone knows that.

All the clever ideas – the silver bullets that will “save” us – collapse in the face of one simple fact. Nobody can deliver quality higher education on the cheap. We need to fund our state universities.

Critics of public higher education cite low graduation rates and long times to get a degree as the major culprits keeping the California State University and systems like it from long-term sustainability. They note that most undergraduates take longer than four years to finish a degree; many don’t finish in six. And foundations, consultancies, taxpayer groups – organizations as easy to create as it is to set up a website – have sprung up to provide silver-bullet answers to these perceived problems.

These groups use catchwords such as “efficiency” and “economy” – but not investment and taxation – on every white paper, news release and fact-dotted study they produce. Based on the drumbeat, one would think that public university faculty, as well as administrators and staff, have a plan to hold our students back so that they accumulate more debt before they reach a job market awaiting them with open arms.

Other studies, however, show that more and more 20- and 30-somethings are living at home with their parents. It’s not merely a comedic “failure to launch.” Rather, this redoubtable job market, supposedly teeming with possibilities, really doesn’t enable many of them to earn a decent living.

And while this phenomenon may represent the fate of certain middle-class kids whose parents, at least, have a home with a spare room to occupy, that solution doesn’t apply to many CSU students. Our students include large numbers who are poor, have their own families, started college later in their lives, and are already working full-time at low-paying but necessary jobs. And today’s undergraduates, especially those whose socioeconomic backgrounds are riddled with disadvantages, have little study time on their hands because they are so over-scheduled.

In a commuter school like the one where I teach, I watch the parking lots empty out dramatically when a class period ends as students speed from classroom to job to day care. It will take them much longer to attain that degree than those privileged enough to devote themselves to their studies full-time.

The answer, obviously, is more state funding for CSU, and more money for our students to live on while they study. The new state budget, however, didn’t include as much as CSU sought and trustees were told Tuesday that enrollment growth in the fall will be about 10,000 students instead of 20,000.

The subtext in so-called reformers’ rhetoric is that they really don’t believe in the same quality of education for everyone. In a misguided push to make things supposedly cheaper and better, reformers design “multi-tiered” approaches to attainment of college degrees. In other words, the kind of education a student gets is based on ability to pay, and even more pointedly, on his or her ZIP code.

One online education consultant who addressed the CSU Academic Senate admitted that “his” kids and “our” kids weren’t the target population in the expansion of online education. “His” and “our” kids would get liberal arts educations. He suggested that the students who would get online degrees from us don’t care about quality. In his mind, the degree was another commodity to scale up and offer for sale.

The implied class divide, not to mention the anti-intellectualism, is chilling.

Is it only a matter of time before we see yet another documentary, maybe a version of “Waiting for Superman” aimed at higher education? That awful film absolved the rich, the reformers and legislators from responsibility for weak policy and underfunding public education by blaming teachers and their unions.

These reformers abrogate their own responsibility to pay their fair share of taxes – corporate, property and personal taxes – to actually support quality education in California as the public good it is. As they have with K-12, such “lone rangers” have a belt filled with silver bullets. They will continue to write concerned reports and op-ed pieces about higher education “reform” because those who can’t, or won’t, teach feel free to tell others how to teach.

Given their track record, I’d say, get ready to dodge more silver bullets.

Author Bio:Susan Gubernat, is Professor of English at California State University, East Bay, and secretary of the California State University system Academic Senate. She is a member of the California Faculty Association and the AAUP.