When I graduated from my undergraduate institution, I decided to take a gap year and brave the job market to save up for graduate school. I found myself working at a local university (on the administrative side of things) gaining experience that, I hope, will prove useful throughout my career.
While I was sitting at my desk this morning, a colleague walked by and mentioned that a lot of students were touring our campus today. She expressed her delight with a slight giggle and exclaimed, “All those little units of profit!!” Her statement totally shocked me… and not just because I’ve never heard a student referred to as a “unit of profit” before. My first instinct upon hearing her statement was to remind her that there is “so much more” to education, especially college education, than just profit. I wanted to lecture her about the rigors of the curriculum, the beauty of conversations between students and faculty that lead to amazing intellectual discoveries or conclusions… I wanted to stand up for all the academic ideals that inspire me to pursue my own education and to ultimately strive for a job in this field.
But, because it was barely nine in the morning, I did none of that. I chuckled and nodded, the dark circles under my eyes and the absent look on my face letting her know that I wasn’t mentally prepared for her jokes this morning.
I gave myself some time to process everything, though, because I feel like there’s something important buried in that statement. Maybe it’s the difference between “faculty” (or, in my case, future/potential faculty) and “administrators.” Maybe it’s the the fact that I’m an idealist and she’s a numbers person. Or maybe it’s indicative of a shift I’ve been allowing myself to be ignorant of: the movement from the ideals of education to the financial realities of running (and attending) a university.
There is a lot of talk at my university about budgets and I would imagine that it’s the same at almost every university around the country. Money is tight and, inevitably, programs end up getting cut, budgets are restricted, and (as the rumor went at my undergrad institution) admitting more “out of state” or “full pay” students to increase revenue. While I certainly can’t claim to have any real knowledge about the world of university finances, I know enough to say that it shouldn’t be the center of higher education.
Most, if not all, colleges are largely funded through tuition and fees so it makes sense to view students as simply a means to an end. But to deny that students are coming to the university with certain expectations about what a college education means and is. This focus on finances has lead to things like the adjunct crisis, leaving too many professionals struggling to get by under a huge workload and too many students with professors that just can’t care as much as they should. It’s forced programs (largely in the humanities) to suffer cuts, telling students that the humanities ultimately doesn’t pay… inspiring some students to ditch those fields entirely. I’ve watched schools with large athletic programs, like my undergraduate school, spend MILLIONS of dollars on stadiums, scholarships, food, “freebies,” and a number of other things on their most gifted athletes while your average student struggles by with loans and an overall lackluster college experience.
This isn’t the voice of someone that is bitter… I don’t want anyone to think that I am losing faith in higher education. I just believe that we need to remind ourselves why these institutions exist. It isn’t to serve as a farm system for the NFL or NBA. It isn’t to hire low-wage adjunts/graduate students to educate the masses. It is to provide real, quality education to students… all students.