Higher Education needs to tell it straight


Opinion by Dr. David Svaldi

Hubris is defined as extreme arrogance or pride.

Many of higher education's problems stem from the hubris communicated by higher education spokespeople. We act as if our institutions are entitled to funding, because such subsidies have been in effect for as long as we can remember-because we have noble missions that include a search for the truth. We may have highly selective admission standards that guarantee we have a great institution because we have the best students. Or, we may have a world-class faculty that are highly published in their fields, and we receive millions of dollars in federal research dollars. It's not a lot different than when we were children and argued we were better because we had the best bike.

Public higher education institutions are faced with the same challenges as any other public entity: it's not about past achievements -- what have we done lately? We straighten our thousand-dollar suits and inspect our $200 haircuts and then look aghast when a legislator, Senator, or Congressman questions exactly why we need a continued subsidy. We are communicating hubris: "Only a fool doesn't understand the importance of what we do-why, we have the greatest and most envied system of higher education in the world!"

Then we compound matters by speaking in terms that no one not part of the academy understands and which sound ridiculous to some:

  • "Our FTE support per student is the lowest of all of our competitors."
  • "Our COF share continues to be cut, and our competitors have better fee for service contracts than we do."
  • "We provide great value-added for our students."
  • "There are few conservative professors because those kind of individuals are drawn to money making careers and don't want to do the hard work of teaching a 6 CH load and grading papers while having to research and publish . . . (you get paid how much for teaching 6 hours (!) a week?)"

And sometimes we drone on and on, not noticing that we lost our listeners two minutes into our rant. And we talk a lot about resources and money and almost everything but students, who are perhaps the reason many of our institutions exist.

We are in an era in which Missouri's "show me" motto is new again. What will the public get for the investment of their hard earned tax dollars in our public colleges and universities? Why should the public pay for this subsidy and how is it any different than any other subsidy, or even welfare?

In our arrogance, we think that debate over the original GI bill settled the question of a college education not as a privilege, but as a right forever. Let's get out of our $1,000 suits and demonstrate why a college education is still a public good in concise terms understandable to our stakeholders, and then shut up and accept the decision.

So here it is in a nutshell:

Higher education is the best tool for helping people raise themselves up by their own bootstraps. The opportunity to complete college allows people to make positive contributions to their families, communities, and society - rather than becoming a burden.

According to a report by the College Board, college graduates earn about $800,000 more in a lifetime than those with only a high school diploma. They are also subject to lower unemployment rates and more likely to have an employer-sponsored health insurance and pension plans. In addition, college grads are more likely to vote, volunteer in their communities, and have healthy lifestyles.

Americans have always viewed higher education as the key to climbing the socio-economic ladder. However, research shows the lower a student's family income, the less likely they are to complete college - regardless of academic preparation. So it's clear that making higher education not only accessible, but affordable, is crucial.

Anna Bernasek, in the New York Times, wrote, "Education is not just part of the cost of maintaining a functioning democracy, but a source of wealth creation for all. That means that investing in the education of every American is in everyone's self-interest."

We need to find ways, even with the financial challenges that every state is facing, to support access to and success in higher education. The future of our young people and our country depends on meeting this challenge.

Note: As President of Adams State University in rural southern Colorado, I don't own a thousand dollar suit, but I do have one good Brooks Brothers suit I bought on sale....and a bunch of JC Penney's and Kohl's clothes.