Higher Education

What do SUNY budget woes say about the future of higher ed?

The honest answer is that it’s a hard to say. If you live in NY then you probably know about the state’s budget issues with SUNY being one of the main targets for cutting. All types of bad stuff might happen. Despite the fact that there are well over 400K students at SUNY’s 64 campuses, the state has always been better know for its private institutions. So what is one to do? I’m not only SUNY faculty but also a SUNY grad. There’s a lot of good here, but the situation now is not good.

Anyway, there’s a larger issue here. The cost of higher ed has well outpaced inflation for decades. My step-father earned his tuition money in the 70s working a summer job. Little chance of that now. On top of that, a larger percentage of HS grads go to college now. That means less prepared students and it also means more students with less economic ability to afford college. In short, the costs keep rising, and the students’ ability to pay keeps declining. It doesn’t take a genius, right?

While it’s true that European universities go back to the 11th century or something like that, higher education as we know it is pretty much an industrial age phenomenon. They’re the prototypical bourgeois institution, the gateway into the managerial-professional class. I’m trying to imagine appropriate analogs from previous eras. Would you say that the monastery was the university of the middle ages? that guilds were the colleges of the early modern era? Obviously colleges existed at those times but they were for such a small % of the population that they couldn’t have served the same purpose.

I’m not sure how well those analogies hold up, but the point I would like to make is that during those historical periods it was probably difficult to imagine society functioning and transmitting its cultural knowledge without those institutions. That’s the way we think about higher ed today. I mean, if anything higher ed seems more necessary than ever, right?

But in part the reason it seems that way is b/c we are facing educational challenges where our existing institutions no longer seem up to the task. This is obvious in these rising costs (and I’m looking at this not only as a prof but as a parent who’ll be sending kids to college in 10 years). Colleges continue to operate by an industrial model and it’s very difficult to imagine faculty and admins moving out of that model. No one in any job likes to be the subject of "efficiency," as that seems to always mean something dehumanizing. However, we need to recognize that the practices that we have naturalized as college teaching/learning are contingent, material-historical artifacts. That doesn’t mean those practices are bad or even ineffective. It just means that they represent ways of teaching and learning under certain conditions. Conditions that are now changing. And while we can certainly manage to keep up with our legacy systems, eventually they start to become expensive by comparison.

Given all that, I certainly wouldn’t want to imply that we should just buy what "they" are selling–whoever they are. Instead, as is the running theme here, I would contend that faculty need to reinvent their practices to respond to our new circumstances. And clearly there are faculty doing that.

But I don’t think it’s enough. It’s easy to imagine a system like SUNY falling apart in a handful of years. SUNY really came together in the 60s. Just 40 years ago. There’s no reason to believe it will last another 20 years. It might, but it could just as easily be gone in 10. And who knows what will happen to the colleges then. If this kind of thing would happen nationally, not to everyone but to a decent portion (say 10% of colleges) you’d suddenly find a couple million students still in need of an education.

Something will fill that gap. And whatever it is. If it "does the job" and does it with less cost then look out. And I’m not necessarily talking about for-profit universities, though that’s an easy assumption. I’m talking about a new institution that will attract faculty from colleges, give them the kind of work environment they need to thrive intellectually and professionally, provide students with higher education, and be able to do it better than current colleges b/c they will not be bound by institutional inertia.

As always, we’ll see.