Category Archives: Higher education costs

America’s political rigidity

Blame it on the echo chamber.

Or perhaps blame it on fear.

Or perhaps blame it on anger.

Whatever the cause(s), too many Americans have wrapped themselves in their political orthodoxy. It must be a suffocating cloak.

The left will tell you that those on the right have become fascist-loving, race-baiting, Bible-thumping bigots. Turn your head to the right and you’ll find people telling you that those on the left are police-hating, socialist-dreaming, abortion-loving losers.

Perhaps the only thing the two sides will agree upon is the other side just doesn’t get it. Come to think of it, they’ll also agree that the other side is preventing America from moving forward.

Now that’s a fine way to create a healthy discourse.

To suggest that Donald Trump is responsible for this mess is folly. Sure, the president, on multiple occasions before and since his successful 2016 election, has thrown gas on the raging fire, but that fire had been burning for almost 25 years.

Two southern, Republican “gentleman” deserve far more blame than Trump for causing this fiasco. It was Newt Gingrich who used the 1994 midterm elections to establish the idea that Republicans should define Democrats simply as the enemy; their presence in Washington was a heavy weight that could sink the “Contract with America.”

Later, Mitch McConnell saw the first black president in American history simply as someone who had to be removed after just one term. McConnell welcomed the idea that the GOP was the “Party of No,” and had an obligation to place as many roadblocks as possible in front of Barack Obama.

By time Trump came along, hatred for the left and for anything resembling a progressive ideology had been baked into the right’s thinking.

Some of you reading this post have reached a conclusion at this point: Typical liberal.

Well…if I’m one of those liberals, then tell me why I also believe those Democrats who argue illegal immigrants should automatically receive multi-faceted government assistance are wrong. You thought I was going to wade into the abortion fight, didn’t you? Well, since you asked, I’ve always found it curious when the few pro-life Democrats contort their personal beliefs around the idea that abortion is a decided issue. Pick a side: pro-life or pro-choice.

Meanwhile, let’s be clear that the right is in denial when it suggests abortions will stop if Roe v Wade is overturned. Women will still terminate their pregnancies, and in ways that will increase the chances of harming themselves for years to come. We could have that conversation, but, you know, culture wars are so much fun. The right’s sanctimonious attitude about abortion is awful, but the pro-life Democrats who won’t take their personal beliefs beyond fence straddling are weak, in my opinion.

Next, if I’m such a liberal, please tell me why I think free college education is a ridiculous idea. The number one reason public college tuition is so grotesquely priced is because approaching two decades now both parties repeatedly have slashed funding earmarked for higher education. If states’ governors and legislators would do the right thing and reaffirm the importance of college, then this silly idea of making college free could go away.

I could go on, but the point has been made: political rigidity reflects poorly on the nation. I can hear the left reminding me that the right pines for an America that has long since been sent into the history books. (Gotta tell you, there’s a lot to that past that ought never again see the light of day.) And I can also hear the right telling me that the left is ready to reject any semblance of honor and pride in its lust to give something to everybody. (Gotta tell you, I agree with some of this, but let’s not go deep into the weeds.)

Yes, conservative and liberal values are good, and conservative and liberal policies have merit. Damn crazy Independent, I am.

One way to start changing the political dynamic in America: stop electing people such as Donald Trump, Mitch McConnell, Ted Cruz, Richard Shelby, Nancy Pelosi, Dick Durbin, Patrick Leahy, and Chuck Schumer. Clear out those who espouse hate or represent political entitlement by returning to office again and again (and for no apparent good reason).

Why Saudi Arabia’s commitment to distance learning matters

The Saudi government intends to invest heavily in improving online/distance learning opportunities for Saudi citizens. This development could have far-reaching implications for colleges and universities around the world.

In a recent story in the Saudi Gazette, a top government official indicated the coronavirus epidemic provided the impetus for rethinking remote learning in the Kingdom. The official said, “We need to focus more on investing in the positive results achieved in distance education and developing its programs and plans in future.”

I am department head and associate professor of Communication at Robert Morris University. Our university has benefited from a strong Saudi student population, and the annual Saudi National Day on our campus brings together our faculty and students to celebrate this important event on the Saudi Arabian calendar.

A drive to enhance distance education would have an impact on our campus, just as it would for any U.S. college or university. 

Arab News recently reported the Saudis spend more money on education than any other nation. Those dollars include a commitment to creating leading international universities; so far, one — King Abdulaziz University — is ranked among the top 250 universities in the world. Suffice to say, the Kingdom’s leaders want more of its domestic institutions appearing on such lists.

Without question, Prince Mohammed bin Salman has designs on increasing Saudi Arabia’s presence in the international education arena. Remember, too, the Vision 2030 project is based, in part, on improving the overall quality of education within the Kingdom.

Saudi Arabia sends about 37,000 of its college-aged students to U.S. universities; only four other nations send more to America. Those students pay full tuition and fees, as do all international students, and those dollars are significant especially at smaller colleges and universities.

If the Kingdom determines in the future remote instruction has made sufficient strides to allow for those Saudi students to major in online programs, imagine the financial repercussions. The Kingdom could demand lower tuition rates for its students by, for example, demanding they pay what domestic students do. It could consider other nations as destinations for its students, whose spending power would remain inside the country. 

At the aforementioned Saudi National Day celebration on my campus, I’m always impressed by the enthusiasm of the Saudi students as they talk about specific regions or cities throughout the Kingdom. The educational and cultural program they provide serves as an important reminder of how valuable thy are as ambassadors for their country. My university, like all U.S. higher education institutions, has been made better because of the Saudi presence on the campus. It will be incumbent on us as administrators and faculty to ensure vital partnerships continue between our two nations as the Kingdom explores how to strengthen distance learning throughout the country.

HIGHER EDUCATION’S PERILOUS SLIDE

It was only a generation ago that higher education was still seen as a public good, an institution that needed to be in strong financial shape because the work inside its walls was essential to America’s growth. Financially healthy colleges were expected to provide affordable educational opportunities for men and women from all walks of life.

Today, higher education is viewed as something that must be paid for, and going into debt in order to attain a degree is taken for granted. In a warped way, the student loan has become a kind-of badge of honor, an indication students are betting on themselves to make sufficient income in the future to pay off that loan.

And as the amount (and we’re not talking interest) grows as their time in school goes by, well, that’s the literal price they have to pay now that college is considered something other than a public good. Sadly, for too many college-aged students, the debt load becomes too much.

I’m reminded of my own experience as I write this. Nearly 35 years ago, I completed my freshman year at the University of Southern California with a roughly 3.5 GPA. I was excited for what was to come, a still awkward and naive 18-year-old who believed in the system and thought my good grades would come with a financial award.

And then my financial aid offer came in. For the academic year to come, it included yet another loan I was expected to take out in order to meet my financial obligations to the university I had wanted to attend since I was about 8 years old.

Suffice to say, I was disappointed. And angry. And frightened.

With the offer in hand, I drove to campus, marched into the finance office and basically said “no.” Shaking, I explained it was impossible to believe my academic success in my first year warranted another loan. The one I already had? Sure. But two? There had to be another scholarship somewhere, some grant somewhere, that would replace that loan.

“If there isn’t, I can’t come back,” I said. Later, my mom told me how brave she thought I’d been to be so bold in articulating what I needed.

Two weeks later, and having already determined to which school I would transfer, I received an answer: That second loan was gone, and a scholarship had replaced it. Don’t ask me about the corresponding details; I can’t remember them. But I do remember that scholarship remained in my financial aid package when I was a junior and a senior.

I also remember clearly thinking what might have been if either I’d refused to speak up or if my request (demand?) had been turned down.

Granted, I was attending a private university, and suffice to say I wasn’t a spoiled child. I was the antithesis of the stereotype of the USC student back then: I wasn’t rich; I didn’t have a cool car; I needed to work; and my clothes weren’t brand name. In retrospect, I admit my heart overruled my head when it came to selecting the college I’d attend; little did I realize I’d be repaying a student loan for over a decade.

But I digress.

Today, only the most upper crust of American society can pay for a college education without encumbering a loan. And that means there’s something fundamentally wrong with the system.

The evidence is everywhere: College graduates earn more money over their lifetime and have a better overall quality of life than their adult counterparts who didn’t graduate from college. Yet, governors and legislatures in all 50 states have bought into the poisonous idea that says “if you want that degree, go into debt to get it.” My experiences with family friends whose children attend colleges all over the country suggest the response I received in the summer of 1986 isn’t the one students receive today, regardless of whether they attend a public or private institution.

Leaders in all 50 states have compounded their poor choice of cutting funding and devalued further the entire higher education enterprise by looking the other way as tuition prices have soared and as more and more undergraduate classes have been taught by low-paid, overworked adjuncts.

Before I’m accused of disliking adjuncts (I remind you that I’m married to one), allow me to explain: Cutting state funding opened the door for grants to become valued options to make up some of those missing dollars. Research became as important, if not more, than teaching; faculty awarded six- or seven-figure grants thus spent less time in the classroom. But classes still had to be taught. Instead of hiring tenure-tracked positions, cash-strapped university leaders opted for adjuncts, who teach a course for a flat fee (and less than a tenured faculty member would make) and do so without benefits.

Three recent phenomena have put this entire modus operandi in a perilous situation: the economic collapse of 2008, a subsequent decline in births, and coronavirus.

Overly simplified, 2008 saw the crippling of university endowments and spending; the subsequent decline in births means we’re at the leading edge of a multi-year reality that fewer students are in high school and fewer still will go to college; and the economic impact of coronavirus has again crushed the bottom line.

View it this way: Imagine you had $1 in 2008. The financial catastrophe that year left you with 75 cents. You made up some of the difference over time and began 2020 with roughly 80 cents, knowing there’d be smaller freshmen classes for most of the decade. The economic realities of coronavirus has left you with around 55 cents. Oh, and you can’t touch your trust fund (aka, the endowment) because large portions of those dollars are earmarked for specific purposes.

There are a host of ways to address the financial red ink: selling unused or underused buildings and mothballing other such facilities, hiring freezes, salary freezes, pay cuts, staff cuts, benefits cuts, financial aid cuts, sports cuts, faculty cuts and program cuts. None of them is good. Eliminating sports teams, staff, faculty and academic programs will generate the biggest headlines, and those headlines won’t look good. Trimming financial aid means the student body might be forced to…you got it…take on or increase a loan.

Why exactly are you a university president or chancellor? Certainly not to carry around a hatchet and carve up the history of your institution. But in the late spring and summer of 2020, you have no choice.

Many of you reading this post are wondering why I didn’t put “eliminate administrative positions” on the list. Simple: as one college after another has had to be run more like a corporation because of the neglect from their state houses, administrators don’t come cheap. The cost of doing business today is such that highly-paid top administrators are essential on the college campus. As legendary CBS News anchor Walter Cronkite would have told us: “And that’s the way it is.” (Full disclosure: I’m a department head, which puts me at the lower rung of the administrative food chain; however, I’m on the food chain, so you decide if that role clouds my judgment in this case.)

So, here we are on this unofficial first day of summer, the day we remember those men and women who wore the military uniform and lost their lives while doing so. Our college has fewer dollars than it did just 12 years ago (and I could have gone back further if I had wanted); our states’ governors are about to slash funding for higher education again; fewer college-aged students are on the horizon; unemployment might reach 20% before the summer is over; a deadly virus might again force us to teach off campus again in the fall; expensive testing will be required if we are on campus so that we can have reasonable assurance we won’t get sick; some of our colleagues are being laid off; some colleges and universities have closed for good, and more soon will.

Meanwhile, there are 18-year-olds killing it in the classroom who soon will receive grim news: They’re about to be told to borrow more money in order to complete that academic degree essential to their future. They won’t be able to afford it.

What will they do?