by Eric Garneau
The Rich Get Richer
The growing division between classes has become a hot topic in the United States, and it appears that divide has edged its way into higher education. While top research institutions and elite universities seem to be doing alright, less selective 4-year schools and community colleges are feeling a serious strain on their pocketbooks. Like so many financial hardships, that can be traced back to the 'Great Recession.'
When times are hard economically, college enrollment goes up. That's especially true at community colleges, which tend to offer students more direct job preparation. However, students' ability to pay for that schooling simultaneously drops. That leads to state legislatures freezing or capping tuition at public institutions. Concurrently, the funding those legislatures directly provide the schools drops. When you couple that with natural inflation (and, let's not forget, a sudden influx of students consuming more resources), it becomes very difficult for those schools to give their charges a proper education.
Trapped in a tough situation, schools begin to cut what they consider extraneous, non-essential programs; typically theater and foreign languages are the first to go. But cuts can only go so far before programs generally viewed as more fundamental begin to take a hit. That leaves educators questioning whether or not what they have to offer students has any real value.
Of course, that assumes students actually get to college in the first place. According to The Chronicle of Higher Education, college costs rose 50% in the last decade - no wonder some state legislatures have decided to cap tuition. In surveys that ask respondents why they didn't attend college, the answer that comes up is almost always 'money.' Even if students do seek out the college experience, many opt for a community college or inexpensive 4-year university solely because they're much more affordable. The worry is that students will begin 'trading down' to no schooling whatsoever.
Obviously that hasn't happened yet; more students than ever are looking for college education. It seems almost paradoxical that an increase in the number of students could actually be bad for higher education, but without the infrastructure to support them that seems to be the most likely outcome. School administrators are attempting to come up with novel solutions to these economic troubles, but some have a fairly negative outlook. Stephen Portch, former chancellor of the University System of Georgia, put it succinctly to The Chronicle: 'Our system is bankrupt, and we've got to have a new model.'
Some professionals don't believe things have gotten quite so bad.