Bankrolling Education

I began my first post as a member of this blogging community as a reflection on course organization, but as the week progressed it has been impossible to ignore some of the larger issues facing higher education—Romanticists and non-Romanticists, faculty and students, graduate and undergraduate students alike. Public institutions around the nation are asking if they will have state support next year—support that (although less substantive than it was in the past) most state colleges and universities rely on.

Faculty members at various state institutions have made a stand this week, protesting the massive state budget cuts affecting education. For example, as reported by Slippery Rock University’s newspaper, The Rocket , students and faculty at Pennsylvania State School of Higher Education’s Slippery Rock University rallied together in protest of the proposed 51.4% budget cut. Meanwhile, in New York, thirty-three people were arrested during a non-violent protest. The proposed budget cuts in New York will reduce the budget of CUNY’s senior colleges by $95.1 million and community colleges by $17.5 million. Why should we all be concerned with the finances of these state institutions, you ask? Well, because these seemingly isolated incidents help to create a narrative about the importance of education in America. Educational funding is often framed as party politics or treated as an investment in some imagined future (raising/teaching the next generation, forming a future America). Perhaps those are both true but as a graduate student who learns with and teaches nearly 150 students a year, I’m most interested in how such changes dictate who is and is not able to attend college. State (and federal) funding opens or closes the doors of higher education for many Americans. If states’ education budgets are slashed in the ways proposed, universities must find a way to stay in the black. Who will bear the burden? How will our classrooms be affected by such changes, if at all?

I was recently asked a set of questions meant to provoke interesting material for a banquet introduction. One of the questions asked, “If you could rid the world of one thing, what would it be?” I thought through all of the typical answers: violence, bigotry, misogyny, hunger and disease. I even considered the entirely selfish answers: deadlines and comprehensive exams. In the end I decided my answer was college debt. Not only because I’d love to relieve my credit report of this particular burden but because I believe that education should be accessible for those of us who would like to learn. Education should come at a price—the loss of ignorance, some serious intellectual exercise– but it seems unjust that the cost of education should be a lifetime of debt. Many of us excuse such debt by calling it “good debt,” but deep down we know there is no such thing. If college loan debt were good debt then it wouldn’t prevent my cousin from qualifying for a home loan, especially since he works a full-time job that he is qualified for because of his college education; but that isn’t the case, he cannot buy his first home because his educational debts make it impossible for him to do so (and he attended a relatively low-cost state institution). The Chronicle of Higher Education recently reported on the Pell program, which provides “need-based grants to low-income undergraduate and certain postbaccalaureate students to promote access to postsecondary education” (which means that unlike loans, they do not have to be repaid). Even though the Pell program, through Congress’s continued support, has been able to

keep up with both inflation and a surge of new college students…low-income undergraduates are actually much worse off than equivalent students were 30 years ago. A student without a Pell Grant in 1980 paid less out of pocket to attend a public four-year university than a student with a Pell Grant pays today. That’s because between then and now, the cost of higher education has grown far faster than inflation. As a result, the federal government has gone from bit player to major investor in the educational part of higher education, to the point that it’s starting to rival states in the magnitude of support.

As state budget cuts continue, the reliance on federal support—through programs like Pell, FAFSA, and so on—will increase (as will educational debt). Students will be forced to make difficult choices about the financial viability of education. Whether we are (graduate) students and/or teachers at state funded universities or not, it is important that we advocate for education’s financial accessibility. None of this is new to those of us who annually navigate(d) those annoying, tax-like FAFSA forms in order to pay tuition bills. Even more familiar and heartbreaking are the pleas from students, “I just need a B in your course or I lose my (often state or federally supported) scholarship!” Robert Reich’s recent article might best summarize the importance of education, “Over the long term, the only way we’re going to raise wages, grow the economy, and improve American competitiveness is by investing in our people — especially their educations.” The ways that our governments approach, support, and finance education does and will continue to shape our classrooms.

Finally, hello! I am Teresa Pershing, another new NGSC blogger. I’m a proud member of the Mountaineer (West Virginia University) community and am happy to spend the next several months learning with all of you!

3 thoughts on “Bankrolling Education”

  1. This is a particularly timely discussion for me, as I am doing the annual summer-job hunt (read: freak out) right now — and I bet I’m not alone. For those of us in graduate programs that do not support students over the summer (are there schools that do?), I raise my glass and toast our efforts to both do scholarship and support ourselves from May – August. It ain’t easy. And I give special shout-outs to those who support themselves, or live by themselves, or have children. I teach for CU-Boulder (thank you, CU, for allowing me to teach for funding in fall/spring), but also write freelance and nanny to pay my bills without accruing debt. How are you paying for your degree? Discuss.

  2. Kirstyn, WVU does not support graduate students over the summer but there are some summer teaching positions. Those of us who have the opportunity to receive compensation for teaching while enrolled as graduate students are fortunate; it seems increasingly popular for programs to decrease funding and increase enrollment– meaning that more graduate students are paying out of pocket for their educations. Like you, I’ve picked up extra work to make ends meet. This June I’ll work as a “reader”; in July I’ll teach a single section of Composition and Rhetoric at WVU.

  3. Really enjoyed reading your first entry and was particularly impressed with the frank way you broached a really challenging subject.

    To address your point though about how our classrooms will be affected by budgetary shifts that’ll have to occur—and being the eternal optimist I am—I believe strongly that our entrance into the academy, however stressful and uncertain, comes at a time that affords us a tremendous opportunity to continue to cultivate the vast potential of different technologies that can simultaneously decrease the cost of education and improve student experiences. Of course, online classes come immediately to mind, which, while frequently implemented to cut costs, often retain additional educational benefits. I actually think online courses might represent the ideal environment for things like surveys—both art historical and literary—where I find that the amount and breadth of material to be engaged is best encountered on students’ own schedules, particularly if they’re then able to avoid an extra time-consuming commute to campus. Although the spontaneity of in-person intellectual exchange is lost (unless the student utilizes office hours extensively), I think increasingly that we give our students the best opportunity to unleash their creativity and potential if it’s on their own time and that if we can generate the space for this to occur in a manner consistent with a continuing need to contribute to our respective institutions “staying in the black,” then we’ll all be better for it.

    This would be just one example of a way I think we might emerge from the liminal space we occupy in the history of the university stronger and more pragmatically focused educators. One can’t get a good pinot noir if the grapes aren’t sufficiently stressed. I think the same goes for ourselves as the next emerging generation of romanticists. Judging by the fabulous and supportive exchanges I’ve seen in this forum—itself something that I imagine just ten or fifteen years ago would have been much more difficult if we weren’t in the same program—I think we’ll do just fine.

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