Sunday, August 23, 2020

The college kids are back in town...because UW and other schools need the money!

The current method of higher education in America was already in peril as many states chose higher priorities for funding and the needs of the economy changed. Throw in a GOP that seems outright hostile to smarter than them (especially if they give findings based on facts they don't want to hear), and it's made for a rough situation on campus for administration. But then COVID-19 hit and shut down many campuses from in-person instruction this Spring, leading to a significant change in how classes had to be presented.

Many hoped that COVID and the required changes in college life would be a one-semester anomaly. But COVID has endured far longer and more severely than many of us thought it would have back in March, and now a new school year looms (and has started in some places). And that has revealed a higher education setup in America that is in danger of falling apart with another year of COVID-related cutbacks.

As this excellent article from NC State's Brett Devereaux notes, a big problem with higher education in 2020 is that we emphasize a business model that doesn't think of higher education as a public good that benefits society, but instead it's just another product that treats students as customers with choices. As a result, Devereaux says this leads more of a university's money goes into "campus life" amenities and away from the costs teaching, at the detriment of the education "product" itself.
But even as tuitions rise, almost none of this money is funneled back into instruction or professors. Quite to the contrary, more and more instructors are poorly paid, overworked part-time adjuncts. In 1970, more than 77 percent of university faculty were full-time instructors. Today, 46 percent of faculty are part-time adjuncts; nearly 75 percent are non-tenure-track, effectively an inversion of the old system.

While most adjuncts (including this one) work hard and are skilled teachers, teaching heavy course loads at pitiably low pay makes it difficult to offer the sort of high-quality education they would wish to provide to students. In essence, the business model of education has led university administrators to cannibalize the core thing a university is supposed to provide. At the same time, the amenities arms race and the bloated administrations that come with it impose massive fixed operational costs on the university, compensated for by charging students more to attend, often in the form of fees for all of those on-campus amenities.
And our current system of financing higher education makes schools push toward having students get back to campus and attend in person for the Fall of 2020, despite the many COVID-related problems that come with having large numbers of 18-23 year-olds packed into a small space, because they need the money from tuition and dorm fees.
Now that universities face the emergency of a pandemic, they are stuck. Calling a halt to on-campus operations and going totally online, thereby waiving on-campus fees, was the right, moral choice. And yet it was the option that this reckless system could never take, because those inflated fees were needed to pay the fixed costs of the business model. Without sufficient state funds, universities are reliant on federal grant money, which requires students to enroll. If online courses drive away even a fraction of those students, the house of cards will collapse. For the university to do the right thing would be financial suicide.
You can see the importance of getting that tuition money when you look at the 2021-23 UW System budget that was just approved by the Board of Regents. Nearly 64% of the funds for instruction in the System are projected to come from tuition, as state tax dollars going to the UW continues to stay at lower levels.

And those state tax dollars are likely to be in short supply for the next two fiscal years, barring a large bailout from DC, as June's Wisconsin Economic Outlook projects that we won't back to 2019's level of employment until 2022. In addition, other needs such as Medicaid will take up more of the state's budget, if laws don't change in the next year (HINT TO GOV EVERS!).

In the Atlantic article, Devereaux adds that we need priorities to change at state houses and private college offices in order to make this flawed financing system more sustainable for the future.
The first step is to abandon the business model of education. States need to be willing to reverse the endless budget cuts that have left universities so reliant on stratospheric tuition. Any new funds, however, need to be flagged for instructional budgets and conditioned on tenure-track hires, not more rock-climbing walls, further adjunctification, or empty-chair administrators.

States should also move to cap tuition. Indexing the cap against a mix of inflation, instructional costs, and teacher pay (counted as an average per credit so that it fully reflects the pay of adjuncts and graduate instructors, not merely tenure-track faculty) might serve to tether tuition to the real cost of an education. That way, if universities do want to raise tuition, they will need to reinvest that money into their operational mission of education.
But the reforms Devereaux wants aren't going to happen for the 2020-21 season, which means that if students aren't able to be on campus due to COVID-19 breakouts, they might not enroll at all for the Fall, and they won't give the tuition funds that the university needs. Combine that with states not be able to make up the difference for that lost revenue, and higher education is facing a legitimate fiscal crisis where any COVID-related shutdowns may be the last straw before things collapse.

This helps explain why university officials are giving increasingly heated warnings to students against higher-risk behaviors that might make a COVID breakout more likely. Or as the Chronicle of Higher Education well-put it - "The Student-Blaming Has Begun."
Purdue University, one of the first to adamantly declare its intent to reopen in person, suspended three dozen students for attending a party that violated rules banning large gatherings and requiring masks. Pennsylvania State University suspended a fraternity for hosting a rogue party.

Penn State’s president, Eric Barron, asked students: “Do you want to be the person responsible for sending everyone home?”

The University of Maine’s chancellor, Dannel P. Malloy, wrote in a message to students that “the fate of the fall semester is in the hands of our students,” but that many were stepping up to the plate to lead health and safety initiatives.
Of course, the real problem is that we have a pandemic that isn't slowing down in its spread 6 months after it first broke out in this country, in no small part due to the lack of a unified strategy and honesty coming from DC to stop it. Likewise, universities have been put into a fiscal crunch due to years of defunding from state governments and an increasing arms race to stay ahead of the competition, and now they're in a predictable crisis once they're faced with possibility of fewer students being on campus.

In both cases, the lack of planning is causing the "leaders" to try to deflect from the mess they've been responsible for, and instead claim that the problems triggered by COVID are the fault of others below them.
Julia L. Marcus, an infectious-disease epidemiologist at Harvard Medical School, believes they should. “What’s happening on college campuses is a microcosm of what’s happening in this country, which is a deflection of responsibility from the top down to the individual,” she said in an interview.

“It’s unconscionable for these administrators to be shaming and blaming and punishing their students for what we all knew would happen. For any of us who take a minute to put ourselves back in our 18-year-old selves, asking students to essentially lock themselves in their rooms for a semester isn’t going to be an effective public-health approach.”
Got that right, which is why I'm likely steering clear of the campus area for a few weeks, including the Terrace. As much as I'd like to be there, I also know that 18-year-old Jake would not be hanging out in Witte during Welcome Week, and during the whole weekend. And even though indoor bars like the KK are shut down for now, you know the kids are going to be finding a way and a place.

And thus begins a school year like no other. Both for students on the ground and up in the administrative offices. This next month will be fascinating and scary to see what choices are made by both groups

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