By Brendan Pringle, Foundation Activist at Cal Poly State University-San Luis Obispo
With the daunting prospect of severe college debt, it’s unsurprising that many doubt the “value” of a four-year degree. An average loan burden of $22,000 among public university grads is enough to cause “post-graduate stress disorder,” especially when unemployment is so high.
So, is it really worth the investment? Between skyrocketing tuition and changing curriculum, the answer is hazy.
Many Public Universities Serve Themselves, Not the Public
First of all, public universities, which were established to provide a more affordable alternative to higher education, have panicked at the notion of tightening their belts and have used tuition increases as propaganda for more state funding. Once they realize that the state government is broke, they raise the tuition on students again.
And the cycle repeats.
Tuition and fees shot up 8.3% at four-year public colleges and universities, led by California, whose average tuition increase was 21%. Meanwhile, private, nonprofit four-year colleges raised tuition and fees by a mere 4.4%.
Public universities will continue to whine and blame the recession for decreased revenues, but the fact is they could be doing a great deal more to improve the value of education and keep tuition levels from bankrupting our nation’s future. Change is possible.
A Better Model for Education
The Goldwater Institute recently produced a report about the achievements of the University of Michigan—a public university that has become almost completely privately funded. Back in 1965, the university received 70% of funds from the state of Michigan; by 2003, public funding dropped to 10%. Plus, it’s still nationally ranked as a leading research university.
The secret to its success? One word: adaptation.
The school slashed “unnecessary academic programs” and highlighted its core programs. It began to “generate and manage its resources like a private business,” and took on a more entrepreneurial approach to fundraising. New budget management strategies increased departmental accountability (creating incentives for productivity), and the budget became more reflective of the school’s year-to-year needs.
U-M daringly decided to take on a new model instead of bucking the costs to students.
Liberal Colleges Don’t Care About Jobs
Another problem is that most public universities tend to overlook the motives students have for attending college in the first place. According to a Pew survey, 47% of students said that the “main purpose” of college was “to teach knowledge and skills that can be used in the workplace.” Based on this notion, schools should structure curriculum and provide the best possible resources for students as they begin their respective careers.
The Association of American Colleges & Universities (AAC&U) disagrees. This powerful organization instead advocates a “liberal education” that prioritizes “holistic” development over career training. Most public universities across the nation have unquestionably absorbed this philosophy, but while such a focus has its intrinsic benefits, “liberal education” advocates neglect to consider that students should actually begin acquiring these formational building blocks in high school—not college.
In other words, students should be encouraged to develop more globalized perspectives and learn how to effectively express themselves during their teen years. They should not be forced to extensively study the “liberal education” topics that are irrelevant to their interests and career aspirations. Universities could cut costs, and education would become more valuable for every single student.
Following the lead of U-M, public universities need to restructure their finances and curriculum. Only then will they be able to return to their glory days and compete with the privates.
Brendan Pringle is a Foundation activist at Cal Poly State University-San Luis Obispo.