Why Public Higher Education Should Be Free (part 3)

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Robert Samuels sees “two major movements in education around the globe: increased stress on efficiency and standardized testing, and a growing focus on teaching the whole student and covering a large variety of subject matter. Driving much of the first movement is the idea that education’s only purpose is to prepare a student for a future job in [the] knowledge economy; the second movement is centered on helping students become better citizens and thinkers.” Samuels is concerned that universities are placing too much emphasis on the first set of goals, to the detriment of the second.

One area in which these goals are in tension is instructional technology. Several years after I joined the sociology faculty at Salisbury State College (now Salisbury University), I reorganized our Social Research course, expanding it into a two-semester sequence and adding a computer lab. Since this was in the 1970s, few of my students had ever used a computer, but now they had the opportunity to do computerized data analysis under my supervision. For the first few years, the college had no computer of its own, and so the students had to punch their instructions onto punch cards, have them read by a card reader, and send them over phone lines to the mainframe on another campus. In 1983, the college acquired its own computer and created a proper lab with individual terminals. I think this is a good example of technological enhancement of education, but it did entail some cost. In addition to the cost of the technology itself, the college had to pay me for a one-hour overload to teach the lab. That cost one-third of what the college would pay a part-time instructor to teach a three-credit course; in other words, a pittance. Nevertheless, there came a time when the administration no longer wanted to pay for it, and I had a dean in my office asking me to downgrade the class from four hours to three. I asked what academic justification he could provide for forcing me either to eliminate the computer lab or to reduce the instructional time by a third. He could provide none, and backed down when he saw that I was willing to fight for the course I had worked so hard to develop.

On the one hand, technology has the potential “to make undergraduate education more collaborative and learner-centered as a positive move to update traditional methods of instruction.” On the other hand, university administrations like technological investments that promise to save money rather than just cost money. Often they see technology as a way to teach more students with less professional labor, possibly weakening rather than strengthening the academic quality. Samuels is especially suspicious of completely online courses, which can take the large lecture hall to its ultimate extreme–one professor beaming lectures to hundreds or thousands of students. Undergraduate instruction, which is already getting most of the cost-cutting, is becoming the focus of online instruction as well. “Of course, if the university really wanted to save money, it would move its expensive graduate and professional schools online, but this option is not being discussed because the faculty and administration know that you cannot provide high-quality education in large online courses.” It’s not that students cannot learn from online lectures–I have done so–but that higher-level mental activities are better supported by other types of class organization, including more creative uses of technology.

Underlying Samuels’ whole critique is a strong commitment to college education as a counterpart of democracy. “If you want a democratic society, you need democratic learning environments.” Taking in and giving back lecture material may prepare a student for certain kinds of jobs, but it is an insufficient preparation for participating in democratic decision-making as creative workers and informed citizens. From that perspective, education is a public good, but even public universities are treating it too much as a private commodity purchased by an individual student for the purpose of individual career advancement. “Universities have been privatized because they no longer serve a public mission; instead, they often operate like large corporations.”

Samuels places his argument squarely in the Jeffersonian tradition:

Thomas Jefferson argued for a free public university because he knew that in order to have a real democracy, you need to have highly educated citizens. Jefferson proclaimed that “it is safer to have the whole people respectably enlightened than a few in a high state of science and the many in ignorance.”

No university would admit to wanting to enlighten the few at the expense of the many, but the financial trends described by Samuels do seem to move in that direction, shortchanging undergraduate instruction while spending generously to support star faculty, research and graduate education, and campus amenities.

Samuels would like to see more direct public support for public universities, reversing the recent trend in the opposite direction. He believes that much of that cost could be offset by savings in direct aid to students, as well as in tax breaks on educational savings accounts and expenditures. The federal government alone lost $40 billion in tax revenue from such breaks in 2010, but the entire cost of making public universities free would only be $95 billion. Of course, many of those tax breaks went to wealthy families sending children to expensive private schools, but Samuels sees that as part of the problem. Tax breaks are much more valuable to the wealthy than anyone else, both because they are in higher tax brackets, and because they can afford to contribute generously to the educational savings plans that are sheltered from taxation. The lower half of the population can offset very little of their tuition with tax breaks, since they make too little to pay much income tax anyway. They tend to pay the rising tuition costs by going more deeply into debt. Samuels would rather make public funding of public education the top priority, leaving people free to pay for private education themselves if they want to.

In return for getting more direct public support, Samuels wants to require public universities to control tuition increases (if they charge any tuition at all) and spend a higher percentage of their revenue on direct instructional costs. That would enable them to create more secure teaching positions and support a larger proportion of small classes.

I would like to see higher education move in these directions, but I don’t think it will be easy.  Those who benefit the most financially from the current system will, of course, resist change. Beyond the financial issues, there is the question of how well educated we want the citizenry and the work force to be. For example, do we want machines to do more of the routine work so that human beings can participate in society in more thoughtful and creative ways? Or are we willing to reduce the majority to the level of machinelike order-takers, while only a few people get to think and create? Do we really want undergraduate classes to develop creative thinkers, or just note-taking drones? If we are sincere in our support for higher education, we will have to put our money where our mouth is.

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