The Long Battle to Defend Education

Originally published in the Stanford Daily as part of a column series known as Adventures in Academia that explored issues related to the Stanford University community.

Higher education, the very source of American prosperity over the last fifty years, is now very much at risk in the United States. All one has to do is look at California, which offers perhaps one of the best vantage points to see this destruction of education in action. The state was once the shining beacon of higher education, building the vast University of California system that would make the state one of the most dynamic economies in the world.

The state, once merely mired in perennial budget wars, has now waged an aggressive war against higher education, furloughing professor and cutting large swaths of students out of the system.

I wish it were only the budget cuts that were harming the system. An upturn in the economy and more flush revenues could easily lead to a reversal of the higher education downturn. Alas, budget cuts are only the most recent attack on America’s economic crown jewels.

As the number of laws regulating universities increase with each successive year, the administration of the modern university grows ever more complex. Universities in the 1960s had significantly smaller staffs compared to our universities today, where the typical research university now requires thousands of personnel to handle dense regulations while also providing an ever-expanding portfolio of services. For instance, the UC system last year had almost seven staff members for every faculty member.

Another source of stress is the grand ambitions of government and university officials who see their job as increasing the prestige of their institutions instead of improving the core missions of their universities - educating students. Most recently, that has meant a focus on funded research, a shift that has taken place over the past few decades but has been accelerated due to the downturn and economic stimulus funding.

Unfortunately, the universities being built to withstand these attacks share very little in common with the universities of the past few decades. These new universities are mere shells of educational institutions, acting more like factories producing research than academies of learning. That is a troubling development, because it was the strength and access available at America’s top institutions that ensured the economic dynamism seen in the last two decades.

Students from any social class could afford to attend a state public school by working and living a modest lifestyle. Today, a full-time job may not even be sufficient to pay for in-state tuition, in addition to the general expenses of life.

As this ladder out of poverty disappears and social mobility declines, we are beginning to see the outlines of a new society, one where prosperous families continue to find prosperity while those less fortunate are unable to leave the poverty cycle. By only developing a slice of America’s potential workforce, we are selling ourselves short and hurting our own economic futures.

In response, we are seeing an academic fragmentation in higher education. For-profit institutions are now the fastest growing sector in higher education, and many programs are now cutting liberal arts requirements to focus on “practical training.” Such programs provide a short-term boost to career outlook, but it is the soft skills that are taught in the liberal arts that ensure the long-term employment viability of an individual. The ability to learn new skills, adapt to changing environments and critically analyze new phenomenon are the core of an education, and the core of America’s gains in productivity and economic efficiency.

America’s universities need to be defended from this fusillade of attacks. As is typical, finding these solutions is not trivial. Some commentators have suggested that the U.S. government nationalize top public schools in each region and provide them a dedicated funding source. This would ensure that school like UC-Berkeley, which provide a source of innovation for the entire domestic economy, are not harmed due to the provincial interests of a single state government.

Others have suggested that a more central administration of higher education is a better approach. Accrediting agencies could provide an accountability metric and Congress could promulgate goals for higher education that would carry more force and align better with national priorities.

The problem is that neither solution seems particularly appealing. Defending higher education is a tough job in a time of declining tax revenues and a fragmented population. But this country must fight for the institutions that helped develop the talent and technology that has made America so strong over the past half century.

As students, we have an obligation to ensure that state and federal governments hear from us. Send your representatives letters, and be an ambassador of higher education to your friends and family (i.e. voters). We owe the future generations of America the opportunity to attend strong universities, and we must be the ones that begin the outreach to defend this critical part of the American economy.