A call to arms…and austerity

This week, the president of my undergraduate university published this article in the Boston Globe. Citing the recent student disturbances in England as evidence that federal funding for higher education should be increased and giving Australia as a model, President Aoun, whom I met in 2009 and respect for trying to make Northeastern an even-better institution than it was when he came, purports that we need to fill our nation with college graduates at any cost to the public.

At the risk of stating a potentially controversial and extremely unpopular opinion, I believe this to be misguided and morally wrong. Please understand…  


1.       We need to reduce the number of University Students.

Our public leaders have fashioned an illusionary world where a college degree is meant to be a symbol of prosperity for anyone that holds it. There was a time where once this may have been true, but this is very simply no longer the case. We are living in a time where obtaining a degree is not a guarantee of anything: it’s virtually a crapshoot. There are plenty of people that do not hold degrees who have managed to make millionaires of themselves, plenty more that earn an honest, decent living after having learned their trade through apprenticeship, and many degree holders that have done nothing of import with their lives and who do not earn enough to support themselves or a family.

However, we still encourage our graduating high school seniors to ‘go to college, get a good job.’ The extent that this is national rhetoric can be witnessed by the fact that parents bend over backwards to get their children into prestigious preschools 15 years before their child has any motive to be thinking of college. We are at a point in history where most graduating high school students do end up going to a university. Many don’t cut it, and promptly drop out within a semester or two (at a staggering loss to taxpayers), but many more than ever before stick it out, stringing weeks of studying together by looking forward to weekends of drunken parties, sports events, or simple relaxation. After 4 or 5 (or 6) years, more students than ever before make it though; they walk across a stage and are presented a diploma identical to everyone else’s, regardless of their personal achievement. They then walk out the doors to the job market, with the same qualifications as everyone else and the same bleak prospects of being able to “stand out.”

A university degree has traditionally been presented as an attainment of “higher” learning. How exactly can college continue being called Higher Education if everyone is participating in it? There was a time where the requirement of public education was null. Then grade school was made a constitutional right. Then high school was added (again… the reference to the “higher” acquisition of knowledge in an institution we have come to accept as an American right). Now, regardless of your aptitude or previous record of academic success, you have the right to a university education. Even worse, those people blessed with alternative talents—working with their hands, mechanical ability, exceptional people skills exemplified in empathy—who choose not to pursue a university education for whatever reason are looked upon with shame in a hostile climate. The first and most-oft asked question of a high school senior (“And where are you going to college…?”) becomes an embarrassing, awkward moment for the student that replies, “Oh… nowhere” even if they have perfectly valid and useful talents to offer society which don’t require another degree.

Furthermore, the proliferation of superfluous degrees in “soft” sciences, which were once respected and important fields (Psychology, Sociology, Journalism, Women’s Studies…need I go on?) has made most degrees worthless. There was a time when psychology was understood by a few, thus the opinion of those few was more valuable. When the multitude understand something, expertise becomes worthless. Is a college degree not also meant to symbolize expertise? We, as a nation, are paying out the nose for worthless expertise.

The answer is less students, not more.  


2.       Even Federal Financial aid should be based more upon worthiness than “need.”

In the last two decades, children have been raised with a peculiar ‘entitlement’ mentality, which I am ashamed to admit that I, myself, have not completely eluded. Part of the entitlement our younger generations feel is the right to a university education, partially or wholly funded by someone other than themselves. This right is a fiction. It does not exist.

I do not mean to say that aid, scholarships, grants and other subsidies are bad institutions. What I mean to say is that federal financial aid should be directed at exceptional students that demonstrate potential and persistence who would otherwise be unable to obtain financial security at a minimum level. Subsidized loans, grants and scholarships do not need to cease to exist, they only need to be directed at students that are judged to be the best risk. Perhaps the government (ie. We the People) ought to employ a few actuarial scientists to determine students that are better investments. A private company does not invest heavily in unproven prospects before they have assessed their own risk, yet each year our federal government pumps money into an inflated university system to support students that believe it is their right to such investment, even if not deserved, and each year, our country’s collective investment loses MILLIONS.

The answer is targeted financial aid, not more.


3.   Universities must begin considering austerity measures.

No one could accuse universities of being frugal. Budgets (and deficits) have exploded in the last few decades as colleges race to staff full PR and Marketing departments, host conferences, and throw money away on non-essential activities in the name of creating a public presence and Brand Recognition.

Competition between universities is generally a good thing; it ought to keep academic departments accountable and always striving for higher standards. However, when competition degenerates into which school has the larger football stadium, flashier student housing and most trendy coffee houses on campus, we lose sight of the reason which one goes to university: to be educated. In an effort to boost enrollment and attract more students, campuses nationwide are spending money that could be put into labs, professor salaries, or essential technology on frivolous, flashing neon signs that shout “Come here!” Please refer to my first point to understand my feelings on the matter of higher enrollments.

Additionally, universities shell out millions and millions each year to attract big-name conferences and speakers. While it is true that events such as these do also bring in an amount of money, generally this is nominal when compared with the money spent marketing the events. While the University of Oxford is no beacon of conservation itself, it is interesting to note that world leaders and respected scholars give papers and lectures in tiny two-to-eight-hundred year old classrooms, conference rooms, and occasionally small lecture halls. Rarely are there grand pretenses (other than those that already come with residing in this arcane social anomaly), fanfares, welcoming throngs of adoring public, and pricey amenities offered in full view of the skint students’ own vows of austerity.

The answer is less showboating and lower tuition, not more.

It is time to challenge our universities in the US to make do with less. Cut budgets, slash PR, reduce overhead… I dare you. Or, if you cannot, raise tuition. Go ahead… test what the market will bear. We have not broken yet, but a bubble much larger than housing is nearly ready to burst and when it does, not only will the students bear the brunt of it, your precious institutions of learning may not survive it either.

Remove inessential staff, tighten your belts… the rest of the country has already done this in the last two years, but higher education has believed itself impervious to the howling of the economic winds. It is not.

Spend less on office supplies: reduce, reuse, recycle. Think smaller and better, not bigger and less personal.

I challenge you… pick a team of Northeastern’s bright business majors and MBA candidates to sit down and take a look at your budget—all of it, nothing hidden—let them decide, as students, what is essential to their quality education for which they pay a premium. You are, no doubt, aware of the recent inconvenient attention Northeastern received when it was discovered that an undergraduate student had begun a website to help her pay down her $200k debt after 5 years at NEU. If not, you may visit the article here, and her page here. I graduated with over $120,000 in student loans because when I, a magna cum laude graduate, asked what I could do to deserve more financial aid, was told that I “could always take out more private loans.” This is a choice I made, and I accept that. I will pay for it for the rest of my life, but please don’t make this the legacy of my beloved Alma Mater.

So, President Aoun, I challenge you… make my undergraduate university proud and make it better: for students. And I challenge you to do this without appealing to the “guilt culture” of the nation by warning against higher education spending cuts. Do this by joining the rest of our hurting country in taking stock of that which is truly needed to educate and eradicating the rest. Do this by strategically, ruthlessly cutting down expenses: students, staff and superfluities included.

The answer is less, not more.


~ by aptessmann on December 18, 2010.

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