A Breath of Fresh Air

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Kevin Carey visited UW-Madison this week. He spent some time with my Intro to Debates in Higher Ed Policy class, and also gave a talk at WISCAPE. I have to admit, I was jet-lagged from AERA and feeling pretty low when he arrived. But after an hour of listening to Kevin speak to my colleagues at Madison, I perked right up. I only wish more leaders of my institution, and more faculty, had been able to attend. For those of you who missed it, here are a few highlights of what he had to say:

"... We've built our higher education system from the top down...the resources given to those newly brought into the fold have never matched those who were there from the beginning. Take Wisconsin.... Madison spends far more money per student than other branches of the University of Wisconsin system, places like Oshkosh and Green Bay. Of course, Madison is a research university, a very good one, and research is expensive. So let's set all that research aside and look only at spending on what the feds classify as "instruction, academic support, and student services." Classified that way, spending at all of the other branch campuses is about the same, roughly $8,500 per student. Here in Madison, it's more than twice as much.

So here's my question: why are you so expensive to educate? Why do you deserve so much more? After all, you're supposed to the smart ones. On average, you got the best preparation, you went to the better high schools, you're more likely to come from a well-off family and less likely to come from a poor one. You're good at learning. You can do a lot of it on your own. Maybe it should take less money to help you reach your educational goals. It's not at all clear to me why it takes so much more. And Wisconsin is very typical in this regard. Run the numbers for another state university system and they usually come out the same way."

No one could offer Kevin a decent response. His comments ring loudly right now-- as students and faculty across the University come forward to support the Chancellor's Initiative that raises tuition in an effort to spend MORE per student, while at the same time stating an intention of enhancing college access. How could we be surprised? What member of the university community wouldn't like to have more money for his/her programs? Who wouldn't like a raise, or feel like they got to see professors more often? Who doesn't want to be successful as an institutional leader, and keep our constituents happy? Don't we all-- always-- want more?

But Kevin challenges us to go beyond our own personal, selfish, ambitions. He wants us to think about what we actually do for a living, and how-- and whether- it matters. If we're really concerned with access, if we really embrace the Wisconsin Idea, shouldn't we value leaders who push us to consider being generous with the rest of the students in the state? Shouldn't we listen hardest to the people who appear the least self-interested? Why aren't folks asking, why would an assistant professor work so hard to protect the ability of low-income students to access this university? What's in it for her? Let me tell you, the answer is nothing -- nothing tangible. Just the truly deep down feeling of knowing this is what I was educated to do, it's how my grandparents and parents raised me, and it's the only kind of work I'm willing to put my son in daycare to go off and do.

It's a simple fact: when we increase spending at a place like Madison, and jack the sticker price, we increase inequalities both in terms of per pupil spending, and in terms of rates of application to the UW. As Kevin says, "When people look at resource allocation numbers for our K–12 schools and see massive inequality, two-to-one spending ratios and the like, they call it injustice and file massive lawsuits. When they see the same numbers for higher education, they call it meritocracy, and a job well done."

Despite assurances of late that elitism doesn't pervade our admissions process (whoever thought it did?) the real issue remains that students and families are scared off by the sticker price. Research supports that, and no intervention's ever successfully found a way around it. No amount of discounting will solve it, and there's no reason to think that just because the problem is bad now, at price=X, that it won't be worse at X+$2,500. Especially in financial times this like. Sure more aid will be available, and that's a lovely thing, but inequities between campuses in the state will have grown, and applications among poor kids to our sttae flagship may well decline.

Maybe some just don't care. After all, we live our lives in the here and now, in our own small professional worlds where first and foremost we protect ourselves. But if you have a few minutes alone at night, try setting that aside and listening closely to our visitor from Washington. He left us with these words:

"Only by subordinating some of their self-interest...and embracing the interests of all institutions, and the students within them, and the students who aren't in an institution at all—will America's elite institutions be able to maintain the historic values of higher education that have done so much to make us the nation we are today."

I'd be so proud to be part of any college or university that took that to heart. Regardless of its so-called level of "prestige."