Lumpenprofessoriat recently offered some interesting comments on my post last week on book buy-back schemes (and on Ortho’s comments on that post, too.) Hir post inspired me to write about something that’s been on my mind for several years now, even if it does threaten to out me as a young fogey complaining about “kids these days…and their music, it’s just noise!” Well, actually, I don’t mind the music so much, but I do have questions about the kids these days.
LumpenProf writes, “Right now, every cut in student aid and every increase in tuition, fees, parking, textbooks, housing, and food creates a cadre of students who can only afford to look at the bottom line and will approach higher education with the same eye towards cost savings they use in a trip to Wal-mart.” Ze argues (like Ortho) that students are just responding rationally when they sell their books, although ze disagrees with Ortho’s notion that cooperating in book buyback schemes will bring on the Revolution faster. “Students are behaving like poorly paid workers. They want payday to get here as soon as possible,” says LumpenProf. I get this–and don’t entirely disagree–but I want to address the costs of higher education in this post. There is a lot of money being spent, but I’m afraid it’s not just state legislatures and university administrations that are making bad decisions about investing in higher education. (The following comments apply only to my university–I realize that there are all kinds of different institutions and all kinds of different college students these days, so your mileage may vary. I’ll be interested to get your opinions vis-a-vis what you see at your institutions of higher learning, whether you’re a faculty member, a student, or simply an informed and interested member of your community.
A few years ago, when I was fairly new at my current university (my one and only experience with a large, public university), I commented on how many of my students seemed to have full-time or nearly full-time jobs, and how that inevitably interfered with their educations. Jobs, not their educational needs or personal interests, seemed to dictate their schedules (as in, “I can’t take any afternoon MWF classes because of my job.” “I have to take all Tuesday-Thursday classes because of my job.” What if the senior seminar you need is Wednesday at 2 p.m.? Guess we’ll be seeing you semester after next, too.) I commented sympathetically about this, saying that I felt sorry that so many of our students had to work so hard, until a senior colleague of mine (who’s a hard-edged libertarian) said, “I don’t feel sorry for them at all.” I was shocked by what I heard as his callousness–we teach at a large, public university. Many of our students who seem like traditional, full-time college-aged students have children already, in addition to jobs, and are enmeshed in webs of responsibilities that I (like most of my colleagues) was largely free of until my early thirties. Many other of our students are in their late twenties to mid-forties, trying to earn that B.A. that eluded them when they partied too hard/got married/had a child/ran out of money the first time around. My colleague continued, “When I was in college [in the late 1970s] we lived in a dorm. We didn’t have apartments, we didn’t have cars, we didn’t go out. We had a an appropriately simple lifestyle. Most of our students are working to support an adult lifestyle, not to put themselves through school.”
More after the flip…
I took another look around, and have concluded that my tough colleague is probably right. Although he’s 12 years older than me, we had strikingly similar college experiences. We both went to small, liberal arts colleges (SLACs) that had a pretty high price tag, and so were privileged in that respect. But, as he pointed out, once the tuition, room, and board bill was paid, he didn’t really spend money. I had a part-time campus job to pay for books and travel back home, but my biggest weekly expense was finding quarters to put in the laundry machines. A cup of coffee at the campus coffee shop was a typical night out, and ordering a pizza or going out to a restaurant was a twice-per-semester splurge. We didn’t even need cash to buy beer–Historiann went to college in the halcyon days when dorms would throw parties pretty much every weekend, and they got money to do so from student fees, and were even permitted to buy alcohol with that money. (I know! It seems like a marvel of a lost world now. I even went to a high school that until the late 1980s had a “smoking area” for students! Take your I-Pods and your Google–we had license to drink and smoke from the authorities, and none of us killed ourselves with vodka the way some of you have in the prohibitionist world the Baby Boomers have imposed on us.)
Our students now spend tens of thousands of dollars a year on their college lifestyle–probably close to what it costs to go to a SLAC now (room and board inclusive). Tuition and fees for state residents at my university are a bargain at $5,598, and about 70 to 75 percent of our students are state residents. The university’s estimate for student living expenses based on dorm residency is $11,052, which brings the bill for in-state students up to $16,650. Students could live frugally in this town very well–there is decent public transportation, and bike lanes everywhere (and most off-campus students don’t live more than a mile and a half from campus.) But, if students skip the dorm, rent for an apartment (even with a roommate), a car payment, gas, insurance, food, and alcohol will cost them more than $20,000 a year, for a grand total of at least $25,598, and probably more if students drink in bars and eat meals at restaurants. (I include a car payment, insurance, and gas in the total, because students all seem to have new cars and drive them to campus. I do see a lot of bikes–but not nearly as many as I should see given the climate and the unreasonable expense–financial and environmental–of keeping a car these days.) Out of state students are spending all of that, plus an additional $13,440, for a grand total of at least $39,000–an outrageous sum to pay to sit in classes that have 100 or 200 students in them for the first two years. Historiann asks: At that price, why are you subsidizing crappy landlords, tattoo shops, and bars, instead of putting your money into a better education?
Is it any wonder, then, that academics come last after work, bills, parties, and football and basketball games? Academics are costing them only about 20 to 25% of their expenses, so students invest their time accordingly. I’ve long argued that the problem in this state is not that tuition is unaffordable–for most middle-class families, it’s well within reach. The problem is that students (and their parents) think that it’s OK to get only what they paid for. Now, Historiann is an optimist, but I don’t think we’re ever going to have a majority of people in this country who will share the academic values that faculty members have. But, the majority of people respond to financial incentives. Perhaps if students (or their parents) were paying $20,000 a year in tuition, they’d take their educations more seriously. They’d come to class, and get better grades (or at least a passing grade, so that they didn’t have to take the course again.) Parents might actually withhold financial support if their children came home with the sorry grades that many of my sophomores and first-year students earn, and richly deserve, if it meant they were out $20,000 instead of only $6,000. Or, perhaps they’d keep their slacker kid at home for a year until he really was ready to go to college if the opportunity costs of sending them to school were higher. (This is something I just don’t get–why parents continue to agree to if not subsidize the underachievers and their party-party lifestyles. But, one of the problems here clearly is the notion that Baby Boomer parents have bought into the notion that college is a 4, or 5, or 6-year party.)
By the way, my scheme of charging more is only for people who can afford it–it’s actually part of a radical redistribution plan that would offer generous scholarships to needy students, while working effectively to weed out the slackers and the chuckleheads. I also think that the university should offer lower tuition to non-traditional students, so as to preserve affordability for people who really must maintain an adult lifestyle. (Any of you who teach these people know that they’re frequently the most motivated and best students in your classes–even though they’re stressed out by work, kids, and paying for their education themselves.) I’m also in favor of a graduated tuition plan that rewards students for doing well and returning to campus year after year. So, a student’s first year might cost $20,000, but then if ze earns a 3.3 or 3.5 GPA, sophomore year would cost only $15,000. The same GPA success would mean that junior year costs only $10,000, and the senior first semester costs only $3,000. If a student maintains the high GPA throughout hir career, then last semester senior year is free.
I used to work for a university that did a marketing study that suggested that they should raise tuition to make themselves more attractive. Why? Well, instead of doing their middle-class students and their families a favor by keeping tuition and living expenses relatively low for a private university, their students (and potential future students) thought that that meant that the university wasn’t very prestigious or academically rigorous. Raising tuition, said the marketing gods, would communicate that this is an elite campus, and you’ll get more applications and more acceptances. And you know what? The marketing gods were right. Applications soared, and the students got better as a result.
Far be it from Historiann to suggest that we should worship the marketing gods. But, if their tricks can work to find us better, more committed students, then maybe we should work with them.