Liddick: Where should higher-ed funding go?
We’re howling about tuition again, I see. Colorado’s institutions of higher learning, thoughtlessly left to shift for themselves by the partisans of pedantry who brought us Amendment 23, are feeling the pinch once more. And due to the state Legislature’s recession-induced belt-tightening, students are about to be subjected to yet another round of hikes in the price of admission to a college degree. In other words, when economic hard times hit, jack up the price of your product and let the weeping and wailing commence; not the usual business model.
Let me be clear: I have a dog in this fight; the decline in state support for postsecondary education promises to affect me personally. That said, I’m not certain that throwing ever larger sums of other peoples’ money at the problem is any solution. Perhaps what is needed instead is a re-evaluation of the entire process of higher education in our fair state.
Consider history: Two of the earliest European examples of “universities” began at Bologna and Naples, as what we might consider technical schools specializing in Law and Medicine, respectively. Only later did a school offering what might be called a “humanities” focus come to being in Paris. Since then, there has been a dispute about the very purpose of “higher education.” Should it provide specialized, job-related knowledge so that the student may be a better employee? Or is society better served by a system that provides a much broader background, “improving” the citizenry thereby?
Originally, American public universities followed the former model, with schools using public funds to promote the “useful arts.” Over time, however, the latter came to be included as part of a “well-rounded education” and costs rose as the curricula proliferated. Given Colorado’s straightened circumstances, it may now be time to revisit this formula.
In the past three years, the Legislature has sliced-and-diced higher education’s budget in an effort to make up for deficits; this year will be the same. Previously these cuts have been made up by an infusion of about $623 million in Federal funds, but this option won’t be available next year. Already, the rallies to forestall tuition increases and talk of tax increases have begun.
May I suggest that before we decide to spend more of other people’s money on the intellectual salad bar that is university education in Colorado, we take a hard look at some basic questions? After all, if the state – meaning everyone who pays taxes – is expected to pay like a parent, perhaps we ought to start acting like one in other ways as well.
Do we need as many MBA programs as state schools offer? How about English? History? Is it really in the interest of the state to fund programs whose students regard their benefactor as mendacious, vicious, or just plain evil? Yes, introspection and self-evaluation are admirable traits, but is the use of public monies to support those who view the public as a collection of racist, misogynist, homophobic dimwits really the highest and best use of limited resources? Or should we build more roads and fix bridges instead?
In this period of “crisis” for higher education in Colorado we, the people who pay, need to make our voices heard on this subject. We do not have unlimited resources, so as those we elect to dole out our tax dollars ponder the dilemma of too few funds to satisfy everyone’s desires, it behooves us to make our own priorities clear.
Should precious public funds be used to subsidize those who seek practical and technical degrees? Should we support more advanced degrees and research in basic sciences, even though those classrooms must be filled out with students from abroad? Is study of philosophy more deserving of support than chemical physics? Will withdrawing public money from the likes of Ward Churchill be “the end of public education as we know it?” Maybe. But to govern is to choose, and it is obviously time to make some choices.
As Colorado’s students gather to petition our legislators for a bigger call on our wallets, we should respond by demanding priorities in funding. Solar energy subsidies or sociology? Romantic literature or roads? Political science or public safety?
Or perhaps we should advocate for the most radical of all steps – a return to higher education’s roots, and a self-funding student body. If the Academy doesn’t want interference from the state, perhaps this is the best way to insure that happens. As an added benefit, such a move might force added prudence and a more serious focus on outcomes from students turned consumers of education services.
But given the state of things, I won’t hold my breath waiting for that to happen.
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