Report on uneven tuition in the NY Times

Related to my previous post about cost-cutting and as mentioned on WPA-L, the NY Times reports on an emerging trend at public universities where students are asked to pay higher tuition to enroll in particular expensive and popular programs, like business and engineering. Why is this happening? Well, state legislatures are reluctant to raise tuition costs (or apparently provide more budget funding) and the cost of these certain programs in terms of faculty salaries, lab equipment, and such continues to rise. Mark J. Kushner, dean of the engineering college at Iowa St, makes the following observation in the article:

“There was a time, not that long ago, 10 to 15 years ago, that the vast
majority of the cost of education at public universities was borne by
the state, and that was why tuition was so low,” he said. “That was
based on the premise that the education of an individual is a public
good, that individuals go out and become schoolteachers and businessmen
and doctors and lawyers, that makes society better. That’s no longer
the perception.”

I can appreciate where some of that sentiment comes from.

Someone might reasonably say, "Around 30% of the population gets a 4-year degree. Why should 100% of the population pay for that degree? Especially when there is a growing economic and cultural rift between these classes of people." Of course, it’s logic that doesn’t really make much sense, since the ultimate result is to make it harder for poorer folk to get an education. While a society requires educated people to thrive, it might seem that that benefit is not as widely felt as it was 10-15 years ago.

Here’s the thing from a student perspective. In NY, students regularly choose to pay double, triple, or more the in-state tuition cost of SUNY schools to attend private universities. SUNY doesn’t practice this uneven tuition thing, but if it charged students an extra $2000 for engineering degree, how does that compare with the extra $40K, $50K, or more they are paying elsewhere in the state? Now I appreciate the access question and the mission of public schools to provide education for citizens, and that’s a question that does need to be considered. However, it seems to me that many students making these choices are looking at far more substanial numbers.

The flip side of this though is that the humanities is clearly devalued in this deal. Students come to college looking to be professionalized, to gain specific skills that will ensure them specific jobs, even though we know that most of them will spend more time studying for those careers than they will spend doing the jobs themselves. Even at a comprehensive, teaching college like Cortland, the vast majority of students come to be professionalized as teachers. Our other popular degrees are in our professional studies school–sport management, recreation studies, etc.

Now here’s the strange thing. You might think the solution is to professionalize the humanities more, but in my experience at Cortland, the students that come our way are only interested in professionalization in the most abstract ways. E.g., they want jobs as professional writers, but they don’t really want to take courses in technical writing or editing. They don’t really want to go out and get internships that would require them to more to big cities. They don’t want to minor in computers or take business courses. Etc., etc.

So in my mind we really need to change the ethos of a humanistic education. It doesn’t have to be, nor should it be, all about preparing to get a job. Courses in these more business and technical areas may be great to balance with a humanities major, but they shouldn’t be seen as necessary, as a bandage on the wound of liberal arts degree. Instead, we need to help our majors envision the kinds of lives they will lead after graduation, including their careers, and help them recognize and communicate to others how their education is preparing them for success in those areas.

This is something we don’t do enough.

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2 thoughts on “Report on uneven tuition in the NY Times

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  1. Totally agree with you. I am horrified at the “toll road” major possibilities in universities. I think it would lock more students into preprofessional majors early on, decrease student retention, and further ghettoize the humanities. I think it would hurt universities overall. Instead, I like your suggestion at paying attention to our ethos as assistant lifebuilders. I also think it is worth fighting for the right for students to explore without the pressure of additional miniscule sunk costs clouding their vision.

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  2. It is difficult to measure out where this strategy might lead. Clearly no one thinks of this as ideal; it’s being taken on as a best option among undesirable options. Or at least that’s the rhetoric of the Times article.
    My concern, as I think about it, is how higher education is being driven by employers. I don’t have a problem with college preparing students for careers. That’s a key role for all of us, I believe. However, I question the notion that employers know what students need to learn. I certainly question the notion that employers would have students’ long-term interests as a priority.
    The problem with “professionalizing” at the undergraduate level is that many real-world professional skills go stale very quickly. They are also not especially transferable. The danger is graduating students who have gained knowledge that has short-term benefit while shorting them on knowledge that would benefit them long-term, though perhaps not help the cash in right out of the gate.
    That said, a “professional degree” is certainly a good choice for some students. I just hope it doesn’t become the only choice and that students only default into other majors b/c of a lack of funds or academic success. I’m afraid that’s the case at Cortland where students who can’t cut it in the education majors end up becoming liberal arts majors.

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