Neo-liberalism? Reality check? What is the language to use in the current university situation of financial instability?
Once, the states subsidized university education. Now, the states don’t want to, or don’t want to at any significant level. There is no shortage of critique regarding the current situation, but there are few solutions. And when an idea comes into being (no matter how young the idea is – for example, MOOCs), the response can be to shut down the idea immediately without any real knowledge regarding what the idea is about. Or, the idea is shut down the idea via the rhetoric of romanticism (face to face education narratives are among the most romantic…..today’s InsideHigherEd piece shares that romanticism).
How to finance what was never meant to need additional finance outside of tuition and subsidy?
1. Cut. Cut programs. Cut majors. Cut expensive faculty lines. Create a cheaper product, but cut. Not ideal, of course.
2. Invent. Create products that can be licensed and sold. In the Humanities, this is a bit of a problem since we are not inventors of material things (though, we tried last year to start such an endeavor via an NEH grant; we did not get the grant).
3. Raise tuition. Limited in effect since it also causes some students to search out cheaper alternatives.
4. Charge students for more services. This has become the norm. When we need to pay for something, we add more fees and charges. Students are being asked to pay for more, if not all, of their education. Taxpayers want out of this business. No politician loses an election for cutting education funding. Quite the opposite: politicians lose elections over questions of who can get married or how much money the prison system receives. Not education.
Can we imagine a day when tuition only pays for the classroom experience? Students already pay for the gym, sporting events, and some other services. Will they have to pay to use the library? Or the commons area? Or even the remedial or support options initially designed for retention? I don’t find it too difficult to imagine such a future.
Will or should students, for instance, pay for the Writing Center? As a writing professor, I find this to be an immediate issue. Writing Centers, so often deemed important, often receive minimal funding and attention. At Wayne State, for instance, the chair of the department did not want a tenure line faculty member running the Writing Center; it was run by a rotating team of graduate students. At Kentucky, our Writing Center is also not run by a tenure line faculty member. Few centers are, despite their importance. And ours has been asked to rethink some of its expenses, including the usage of MA students as tutors, an expense that offers little return outside of tutoring. These MA students do not teach courses that can provide revenue; they, in effect, provide a free service. But they cost a great deal since the MA students are on fellowships. I understand why they should but cut from the tutoring they currently do.
MA students aside – I have no objection to a totally undergraduate peer tutoring model – how could the Writing Center generate revenue instead of being a free service? Is its model the gym or the current library? That is, should it require additional payment for usage or stay free?
What if, let’s say, the Writing Center charged for its services. Imagine this scenario: students registering for their classes, and in particular, their first semester, receive a pamphlet describing the Writing Center’s services and options. The pamphlet also reminds students – and their parents – that most students, particularly in the early part of university education, need additional help in chemistry, math,and writing. The Writing Center provides such help in one of these vital areas. All areas of education and work, after all, require writing. To succeed, students often will need writing help beyond the two semesters spent in required writing classes.
But to use the Writing Center, students need to pay $10 a visit. Or, if they check the appropriate box on registration after reading about the Writing Center, they can receive unlimited visits for $30. Of course, we don’t want them to pay $10 a visit. We want the $30 unlimited. If 1,000 of 4,000 incoming freshmen take the $30 option, the Writing Center will now have $30,000 for the Fall semester. If they sign up again, the amount doubles. Can the Writing Center handle 1,000 students in a semester with unlimited access? I don’t know. Our Writing Center has never provided information regarding usage. My guess is that the average student would use the Writing Center 5-7 times a semester. That may translate to 100 students per day. But I may be wrong. I’m guessing. I would need the data to know more. I also see the gym model extended here. Gyms enroll people on unlimited plans knowing that the customers will not attend in an unlimited way – and many will hardly show up at all. But I want parents to know that this vital service can be used by the student for the entire semester for far less than one meal on the town in Lexington. I want the parents to see how cheap this deal is. $60 a year is a pretty good deal for extra help. Private tutoring alone, over a year, would cost far more than $60. Not all 1,000 may show up in a given semester. But we need 1,000 – and their parents – to see $30 as a minor, additional expense, and one that is very valuable for the cost.
Would our Writing Center benefit by an additional, annual $60,000 over its current, allocated budget? I’d think so. Would this be a popular decision with students who are already over-taxed? Maybe not. Don’t know. Would the university support the charge? Don’t know either. My experience in various institutions is that calls to self-fund are also, at times, countered by fears that Regents, legislatures, or parents will reject the new idea. Thus, as we are pressured to self-fund, we are also constrained by political fears. Those fears may, in fact, be justified. But, then, what is the solution? We have one, limited audience to charge additional fees to: the students. We have 25,000 of them. Without new financial models, like I propose here, then the calls to self-fund should dry up. But they don’t. Obviously, I’m thinking of a persuasive moment, rather than a fulfilled moment. That’s what I do or a living: imagine how to persuade.
Or do you think this model is merely another offshoot of that bad, bad word “neoliberalism”? I’m a realist more than an ideologue. We could just as easily let certain services go away in the name of ideology. The ideological position would be: writing support is meant to be free. Of course, ideology is what gets writing centers into trouble in the first place. The same occurs with online education each time “face to face” is the response to an idea. Another, and likely worthwhile discussion, might be: what would happen without remedial or student support setups like writing centers? MOOCs could be a part of that discussion, but then again, so would be the negative , or even ideological, responses.