How not to write about public education

Public higher education is the largest chunk of American academia.  That makes bad writing about it especially annoying.

MST:3K screenshotToday’s case study is entitled “Halting the Erosion of State Support for Higher Education”, written by Sheldon H. Jacobson (University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign), and it commits enough egregious mistakes to be… instructive.  It’s mistaken enough to qualify for whatever education writing might do along the lines of  what Mystery Science Theater:3000 did to bad movies.  The article is clearly bot fodder.

tl;dr version: the author thinks students don’t pay enough for college.  Yes, that’s right.

I’ll organize the many problems into a shorter list of categories.  Hopefully this can help other commentators avoid such mistakes.

Ignoring recent history The author recommends that “[c]olleges and universities must shift some of the pain resulting from shrinking state support to their students.”  This is a very strange piece of advice to offer, since that’s what colleges and universities have been doing since the 1980s.  Starting, in fact, right about the time the author graduated from university, according to Wikipedia.  Public post-secondary education has been doing this very thing for decades.  At best the article is recommending we double down on this strategy.  At worse, it simply ignores this well-known reality.

As Matt Reed observes,  “In 1977, this would have been a provocative thesis. In 2017, it’s just out of touch.  Colleges and universities have been shifting costs to students, through faster-than-inflation tuition increases, for decades.”

Similarly, the article asserts that “[d]uring periods of reduced state support, universities protect one stakeholder from feeling the pain: the students.”  This plainly ignores the reality of escalating tuition, escalating fees, and escalating debt.

The article also offers this mystifying claim: “state universities have pared down the size of administrations, focusing resources on core educational and research activities”.  In fact, administrative costs and personnel have gone up across higher education for decades.  To be fair, I’m not sure what the author means by “administrations”.  Sometimes academics use that word to mean “C-suite leadership”.  Actually, the category is far broader, and includes non-faculty staff who contribute to those very “core educational and research activities”: IT staff, librarians, counselors, residence life, and so on.  I wrote a post explaining this category problem here.

Weirdly, Jacobson doesn’t mention adjunctification.  He does worry about faculty pay, but I infer that that only addresses tenure-track professors.  Over the course of the past two generations we have shifted the higher education professoriate away from tenure and towards contingent labor, as is well known.  Among other effects, this has reduced faculty compensation budgets, or at least kept them from rising even further in aggregate.  I’m not sure why this enormously important development doesn’t appear in the article, especially when addressing how universities have cut costs.

Another problem occurs with current events.  Towards the end of the article appears this claim: “Our higher education system has been the envy of and model for many countries around the world. The positive trade balance that higher education services enjoys is one metric for this exalted reputation.”  That was very true – until this year.  As is well known (I thought), international enrollments are suffering, thanks to the Trump administration.  Here’s a piece from today’s Inside Higher Ed with more details.  If I may indulge in a touch of self-promotion, my FTTE report has been tracking this steadily, as has this very blog.

Misunderstanding state politics The piece does have some accurate assessments, like “some state legislators think university administrations are fiscally irresponsible, with bloated budgets.”  Very true.  Early in the article the author mentions the politics of “numerous competing interests”.  That’s correct at a poli sci 101 level.  The state governments which allocate funds to public colleges and universities must sift through competing budgetary demands.

Unfortunately, the article drops this thread and never picks it up again, which is a real mistake, as historical changes in state politics mean so much.  First, since the 1980s medical costs have ballooned, as have state obligations to Medicare and Medicaid.  Second, the demographics of aging – people living longer – means pensions are more costly; they were also underfunded from circa 1990 on, which means they have a crying need for new state funding (something which should be painfully obvious for someone working in Illinois, of all states).  Third, media- and politically-fueled panic over crime has made funding police and prisons especially appealing to legislators.  Against these political demands, public higher education tends to lose.  This is very, very important to any analysis of state-funded academia, and its absence from Jacobson’s account glaring.

Another problem appears in this assessment: “students (and their families) are voters — a group to which state representatives respond”.  Students actually have laughably little impact on state politics.  They typically vote in low numbers and donate next to nothing, making them almost superfluous in state capitals.  If we’re talking about families, I’m assuming the author means parents of traditional age students, then we run into two more problems.  First, not all public university students are 18 year olds.  A growing number are older. Second, parents of traditional-age students are also not a major political force.  Back to Matt Reed:  “Voting rates for the 18-28 age group remain far below, say, the 65-75 group, with predictable consequences. The idea that students will rally to save an institution that has taken them hostage just isn’t plausible. ”

In fact, the idea that universities and colleges – institutions charged with a mission of care towards students – would deliberately hike tuition even higher in order to provoke said students into political revolt is… breathtaking.

Avoiding solid research The objections I raise above aren’t new.  In fact, they have been studied by academics.  Let me recommend the leading scholar on this topic, Chris Newfield.  His blog is essential and accessible, as are his books, like Unmaking the Public University and The Great Mistake.  We had a great discussion with him on the Future Trends Forum.

Note that professor Newfield not only opposes increasing tuition payments for students, but argues that privatization is the root of modern academia’s problems.

Emitting mystifying prose . “By working toward a local point of safety, rather than a global solution of excellence, state institutions are guaranteeing their own demise.”  I’m still not sure what this even means.  What is global about Jacobson’s proposal?  What does “excellence” mean here?  Is this mission statement language repurposed halfway to meaning?

Misunderstanding the nature of public higher education One course of action the author mulls is even greater privatization.

The time has come for leaders of state institutions to take a position that will allow states to either appropriately support their colleges and universities, or, if this is not feasible, set them free to operate as private institutions — where the cost of the education delivered can be appropriately recouped directly from students and indirectly through enhanced endowment support activities.

“set them free” does sound good, as does “appropriately”.  Unfortunately this flies in the face of what public higher education is supposed to be: accessible to a state’s residents, and to as many of them as possible.  What Jacobson proposes is the precise opposite, and is simply a recipe for the end of public higher education.

Or as Todd Carpenter (NISO director) acidly comments,

Simply being tone deaf Advising students in 2017 that they don’t pay enough – that they need to pay more – is so offensive that it makes me wonder if the article isn’t a hoax.  I can’t find much evidence of this, and I respect Inside Higher Ed deeply, so I’m going to continue presuming Jacobson is serious.

Student loan debt is now approximately $1.4 trillion.  It’s an unprecedented amount, a historically new event, an epochal break in how we fund public higher education.  And it’s not some secret.  Student debt has been bruited about as a major problem by mainstream and educational media for more than a decade.  It’s a political issue.

But it’s also deeply emotional, anchored in the fate of families and individuals.

Allow me to get personal for a moment.  Many of my family members are the products of public higher education.  The University of Michigan granted me three degrees.  My eldest child recently graduated from Virginia Commonwealth University.  Our youngest just started classes at the University of Vermont.

We are paying on loans for all three.  I recently turned 50, and am still paying for my excellent Michigan experience.  I’m not sure if I’ll finish paying it off before I die, and if my children will inherit the remainder.  My daughter is frantically job searching, and the specter of debt looms darkly upon that quest.  And by what sign did I know my son’s university career had begun?  This arrived in the mail:

Owain's student loan number 1

That hangs over every class Owain considers, every assignment he completes, his choice of major – everything.

And professor Jacobson has the astonishing gall to argue – in public – that we aren’t paying enough?

To sum up: it’s vital for any discussion of public higher education to situate itself in the present day.  That means addressing historical developments which have reshaped the institution, including both research and public conversation, and not conceiving the destruction of the entity in the name of preserving it.

I fear too many academics fail to grasp how things have changed in higher education.  I have seen far too many instances of this in my work of late. Perhaps we are too prone to freezing our understanding at the moment we switched over from education consumers to producers.  We can also, famously, fail to grasp a domain’s nature when we apply our professional disciplinary perspective to it.

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5 Responses to How not to write about public education

  1. May I suggest a small change – In fact, the idea that universities and colleges – institutions charged with a mission of care towards students – would deliberately hike tuition even higher in order to provoke said students into political revolt is… REVOLTING.

    By the way, there’s a natural experiment here – some states (notably your neighbor, New Hampshire) subsidize their public universities very little, and others (e.g. California) much more so, although still much less than in the past – has this made students a political force for universities in New Hampshire? While I realize that state demographics and politics vary and it’s easy to mix cause and effect, I’m not aware of students and families in New Hampshire rising up to demand lower tuition.

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  2. Claudia Holland says:

    Bryan, you neglected to include the escalating costs of textbooks as an additional (&, imo, unnecessary) burden for students.

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  3. Tom Haymes says:

    Sounds like you should have Professor Jacobson on the FTTE discussion.

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