PracticalDad and College:  Austerity Comes Home

While sides are drawn in the Wisconsin public union fight, everyone agrees that the country and its constituent states are trapped in a case of too many promises, too little cash.  What’s playing out now in Wisconsin – and coming soon to Illinois, California and almost every state – is simply the first stage in the fight of redefining our spending priorities.  We just can’t have it all and something has to give.  The local papers over the past several days have brought this to my doorstep as the news announces that our new governor, Tom Corbett, will eliminate the $4 billion deficit via spending cuts alone.  The kicker here is that under his plan, state universities will lose fully 50% of their funding. 

That’s fully one half of their state funding.  It doesn’t mean that the university system budgets are going to be lopped by one half, especially since the majority of the university monies don’t come from the state treasury.  In fact, the amount that Penn State University, the flagship institution, receives from Pennsylvania amounts to only about 8% of its total budget; while I can’t find how much a smaller institution gets from the state, it is probably in that ballpark range.  On the opposition side, the universities are arguing that that money is specifically used to subsidize tuition for in-state students so that what a Pennsylvanian pays is less than someone from New York or Delaware, hence the students will be the ones in front of the falling axe.  One opponent, from the faculty union, stated that tuition could rise by a full 33% should this play out.  While it sounds outrageous, the reality is that California raised tuition by 32% in one fell swoop so it isn’t impossible.  The likelihood is that truth and reason will take a back seat to the soundbites and the fallout will be somewhere far less than that, although it will increase.

Also on my doorstep is Eldest, who’s visiting two of these schools in the next month.  Our mantra has been education without the debt, or as little debt as possible.  We view student debt with almost the same abhorrence as a childhood cancer, something that – even with survival – will follow these young people for years, having an impact on their ability to live a decent, sustainable life years after the debt’s been incurred.  Like most, we’ve saved some but not enough and already, prospective colleges have been given the axe because of cost.  The University of Southern California sounds lovely, but not on the dime that they demand.  Likewise, other top institutions.  We’ll have to revisit plans again and review the prospects and somehow, we’ll find a way to make it work.

But here’s my problem with the proposal and it’s a problem with both sides.  First, if we’re going to talk about the necessity for a better educated citizen to compete globally, then we can’t place such a radical cut upon the age group that’s expected to compete globally for business and trade, a group that’s young, inexperienced and realistically has no political voice.  The flip side is that the entrenched higher education leaders have no business immediately holding these young people hostage with threats of a one-third tuition increase.  If a major institution is going to see it’s funding move from 8% to 4% from one source, how does that translate into a one-third increase?  Explain to me, please, without the angst and hyperbole, understanding that I live in a college town and see capital spending that’s best described as unnecessary.  Don’t talk about different accounts and different pots of money, because I’ve worked in the corporate world and understand that these things can be changed and adapted to the new circumstances.  It’s not easy, but it is achievable

We’ll adapt and figure out a way to make it work, but only if both sides recall that not only are they tossing the newest generation of workers into the firing line, they’re tossing in our children as well. 

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