Thinking aloud: Higher Education Costs

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Today I was reminded of the current fight between SC politicians/bureaucrats and the state’s universities.  Despite slashing public funding for state colleges by nearly 50% over the past few years in the wake of a horrible budget crunch, the state government has declared that schools must keep their tuition increases in the neighborhood of 7% or the state will freeze all funding for building projects on campus (which derails research centers and the like).  The College of Charleston, having originally imposed a double-digit increase for 2011, blinked today and agreed to cut its tuition in order to keep its building program.

I have an honest question.
Since the legislators cut SC public colleges’ funding by ~50% over the past few years, why are they now refusing to allow those schools to raise tuition to cover costs? Shouldn’t it be obvious that at least some of that missing funding must come from “somewhere”?

I understand that tuition rates are rising faster in America than inflation rates or median incomes. Most American families can’t even begin to afford a private university education for their graduating high schooler, and public universities aren’t cheap. With average tuition coming in around $7K a year, many kids are being pushed away from 4-year institutions into community colleges.  I understand how politicians feel the heat from angry parents who thought their kid would attend the alma mater … only to realize they’ll have to mortgage the house (again) to even attempt it.

I cringe when I have to tell my hard-working, intelligent high school students that, in order to afford college, they ought to consider doing a year or two at a local community college. To cut the tuition bill in half, they can bang out gen-ed requirements and live at home. It’s very economic, but my liberal-arts-loving heart weeps to think of great English courses thrown by the wayside, the loss of music theory, the underwhelming science coursework, the completion of high-school level work in the pursuit of a post-high-school level degree.  Our high schools are doing THAT bad of a job?

I cringe because I’ve crossed paths with those community college classes in secondhand form, and the tales make me angry and sad.  I can’t believe my competent, more-than-Honors-level writer was forced to sit through a bonehead English course in which she spent whole months “learning” to write a compare-contrast essay.  I’m amused that our local writing contest judges uphold a standard for written English that I ban from my classroom in all other instances. (Adjectives? Really?  You think good writing consists in multiplying adjectives and filling paragraphs with wordy constructions?)

I’m appalled by the story I heard from my friend who recently left her “job” as homemaker and mom to finish her college degree. Her current English professor insists on discussing the “perimeters” of his assignments even after she corrected him… more than once. He apparently doesn’t know the word parameter.  I suggested that my friend photocopy his syllabus, underline “perimeter” and write parameter in the margin in red, and slip it under the door of the head of the English department.

Sometimes I sit down for lunch with a current college student (or recent grad) and ask them to tell me about their coursework, what they liked and what seemed like a waste of time. I’m disheartened to find kids who hate their majors, kids who sleepwalk through classes because nothing is expected of them. I get angry when I read about rampant cheating and paper-mill-production of college-level dissertations, papers, and masters theses.  I’m so thankful for a great college education.  I don’t know how I got so lucky. God is good…. and my professors were good. A few were absolutely outstanding. And I wrote every word of every paper I ever submitted with my own bare brain.

Has higher education succumbed to the siren call of wealth?

Will a quality 4-year degree once again become the property of only the wealthy, leaving the hoi polloi to scrounge up vocational training at junior colleges and tech schools?  Or is that actually a good thing? Should 4-year or liberal arts degrees be reserved for only the “professions”?

Why can’t the “free market economy” dampen the insane costs of higher education?

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