Friday, October 23, 2009

why public higher education is a good idea
or not, depending

The CSU has been taken over by an administration that does not understand or care about the unique mission of public higher education. They see education as a privilege, and therefore see it as properly allocated according to who can pay more for it. Public higher education, on this view, is only worth whatever dregs the public deigns to spend on it. And if the public - like here in California - denies funding, this must mean that university funding isn't worth the public's money. Instead, public institutions should do more with less. The only educational value these administrators understand is the maximization of cost-efficiency.

First of all, maximum cost efficiency is not an educational value. The best education is neither the cheapest nor the one that generates the most graduates for the least cost. This is as useless a standard of education as overall grade-point average, because in either case, the outcome you're measuring has nothing to do with the quality of education.

But as a recent comment has it, quality of education is best determined not by standards of rigor established by faculty with field expertise. Quality of education is best determined by cost-efficiency. Let's recap that argument one more time: The appropriate way to judge the quality of university education is not to judge the quality of university education but to ask whether the university graduates people cheaply.

I won't belabor this point further, nor spend any more time unpacking the rest of this. It's making quite a stir among faculty across the CSU, because it basically explains the playbook for dismantling the CSU. This is why I wanted to have someone at the rally holding a sign that depicted one of our buildings burnt to the ground, with a Phoenix rising from its ashes. (I know - too conceptual. That's always been my fatal flaw as a creative artist.)

Maybe the question is more fundamental. On some level, what is being challenged is not just the way public education is done, but whether there should be any such thing as public university education.

The main reason I think public higher education is a right of citizens is because I believe in the social justice of equal opportunities for people to make good lives for themselves. The CSU was built to serve the educational needs of people who would never be able to afford private university education. The rationale for opening education to a larger populace made sense in 1960 and continues to do so now, I think: a well-educated public serves the public's interest.

One - indeed primary - way public university education serves the public's interest is economic. A well-educated worker generally earns more, and therefore contributes more to the economy through taxes, but in particular through spending. All told, we know, every dollar spent on the CSU is repaid to the state more than 4 times. It makes no economic sense at all not to fund public higher education. And yet, there is a large group of citizens in California and across the US who see public funding as government waste. I should hope more government programs would be as wasteful as one that generates a 400% return on investment.

On this basis, this narrow, mercenary, blinkeredly-fiscal basis, public funding for higher education is a benefit to the entire public. Current executive administration of the CSU basically denies this, for reasons they can't articulate, because they haven't got any. They don't make the case. They say, instead, that there's no money. When they are urged to pursue more public money, and use this argument to make the case, they say, instead, that there's no money. Funding to the CSU has been cut repeatedly this decade - in years of economic growth as well as decline - and every single time, CSU execs have shrugged and said there's just no money there.

The question that puzzles so many of us is, why? Why would you not fund a program that repays so handsomely? Why would our administrators fail to make this case?

I think the answer is implied in the comment linked above, in particular, the notion that higher education is a privilege, not a right. This basic denial of the social justice of public funding for higher education is the key to this. It's not a matter of serving the public good at all, but expressly of denying the public this good. Why do that, other than to redirect these economic goods into the hands of fewer and fewer people?

It may boil down to such a pecuniary interest. But the public's interest in education is not only economic. Public education serves a social and political good as well. It's true that educated people generate more economic activity, because of the economic value of their knowledge and skill. Educated people are more economically efficient, when considered solely as labor.

The "problem," from one group's standpoint at least, is that education has this side-effect, of helping people develop their own ideas and ways of thinking - critical skills and attitudes for active citizenship. Educated people ask uncomfortable questions about justice in their societies. Yes, so do less well educated people. The difference is that better educated people are also better at analyzing the problems, articulating what is wrong, reasoning out solutions, making the case for these solutions to the public at large. An educated public is socially and political dynamic. More to the point, education has the reputation of leading people to be more progressive politically.

The attack on the CSU is a two-pronged attack on the class of people who increasingly resemble peasants in our society: it undermines their opportunities for economic advancement (denying access, saddling them with school debt), and it undermines their opportunities for political and social understanding, activism, or resistance. De-funding public higher education is a terrific way to consolidate economic and political power for those who already have it.

And this gutting of the peasant class' last best hope for making their lives better is sold to them on the basis of the notion that they can't afford to fund it. It seems pretty obvious to me that we can't afford not to fund it.

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