Repeated funding cuts demand tough choices from higher education
State colleges and universities have been under increasing fire in recent years, with budgets being savaged by governors and legislators. The economic realities of the time are in evidence everywhere.
The picture is far from ideal as students are expected to bear the pain through soaring tuition and fees and much, much larger undergraduate classes. At many institutions, heretofore thought to be academically strong, a first-rate educational experience is something of the past.
The rising costs have put in jeopardy the dreams of many parents and their children. They simply cannot afford the higher educational experience despite increased scholarship opportunities provided by the federal and state governments and the private giving for scholarships. Those who head private foundations admit the massive need has outstripped their means and ability to respond. Their only hope for the future is economic recovery, which will not arrive in time to assist many talented youngsters. They especially fear the loss of needed brainpower among the current generation.
There is universal concern among college and university leaders about the loss of young males who are dropping by the wayside and especially among the ranks of minorities. Numbers continue to grow among women who seek college in a wide range of disciplines; but we need to educate all of our promising young people.
Fortunately, community colleges are helping fill a critical void. Business and industry have a mounting appreciation for the two-year institution's ability to fill a critical need for skilled workers, individuals who are essential to America's quest for continued superiority in the global race. The community college also is educating a growing and crushing number of individuals who want four-year degrees. China, India, and South Korea have adopted a community college format, explaining much of their imposing ascension.
Presidents from the four-year sector make an impressive case for increased research and development at their campuses. They reason that new and innovative research is the only way for the U.S. to retain its enviable position among the world's heavyweights. More and more business leaders are in agreement, as well as leaders from the Congress. Research means jobs. But the underfunding issue must be addressed, and soon.
It is, without question, a central part of the puzzle. Universal education opportunities, though varied, have served the country well. But they must be focused as never before.
In a survey of a dozen public college and university presidents, I learned most are committed to the challenge, but pessimistic about by the prospects for success. They are put off by growing public cynicism about anything that costs money and by political expediency by too many elected leaders.
They are tired of responding to the question of whether college is still worth it. Of course it is, they respond, the only real question should be where students should go. They clearly understand the need for institutional ratings, but resent the overemphasis on them. Most are keenly aware that they have an obligation to be much more precise in their responses, and as U.S. News and World Report recently stated, "If colleges were businesses, they would be ripe for hostile takeovers, complete with cost-cutting and painful reorganizations."
The polled presidents argue that they have experienced both significant cost-cutting and reorganizations, and that more is likely ahead with the ailing economy. More and more, they are being grilled on whether the consumer (the student) is getting the promised product and what their students actually learn and whether their schools can guarantee a job.
These are tough times with tough questions. Clearer thinking is the order of the day. We must remember that America was built, and effectively, on the shoulders of our schools, colleges, and universities. Their outcomes have been imposing, good enough to produce a global juggernaut. Given reasonable resources, they will remain the powerhouses we need.