Saturday, October 22, 2011

Higher Education

You know, you have to sympathize with the complaints of some of the recently graduated college students in the 'Occupy' movement.  After all, leaving the safety of protection of the academic world after 4-6 years, only to find yourself saddled with a debt equivalent to the purchase of a small home in the Midwest can be a rather startling revelation.  Discovering that this encumbrance has provided you little in the way of earning collateral, since your degree in English Renaissance Literature has as much value in the real world as one in Underwater Basket Weaving can be unnerving.

Listen, I can feel your pain.  Back in the days when I was seeking a degree in Philosophy (and no, Socrates and Aristotle were not teaching then, but I think Descartes was), I remember how interesting the courses were and how exciting and fun it was to be learning things that I'd never dreamt existed.  Fortunately for me, I was waylaid in my quest for ultimate knowledge by a professor at the University of Missouri at Kansas City from whom I was taking two courses from at the time.  Though not my academic adviser (who curiously enough, I never met during my time at UMKC), Dr. Minton took the time to patiently explain to me that my Bachelor's degree would do little more than qualify me to sort mail at the Post Office.  He further explained that I would need both a Masters degree and Doctorate to pursue the one job open to such graduates, becoming a professor like him.  Soon after that, I left school forever to pursue the full-time employment in the printing industry that led me to where I am today.

(Of course looking back, getting a job at the USPS in the mid 70's would have meant that I could have been retired by now with a pretty decent pension, instead of having to restart a career after the all but demise of the daily newspaper business; so I should probably be a little pissed at the man.  He at least did me the favor of explaining the hard realities of the world to me however.) 

Knowledge is a beautiful thing in and of itself, and continuing education is a goal to be pursued, not a destination to be reached.  Nor is the process limited to the academic environs of a university and the structure of a classroom.  I have achieved far greater knowledge and insight in the last few years under the tutelage of friends now living in Virginia or still living in Toledo than I did in many of the years before (Thanks Brian and Maggie).  With no more instruction than, 'if this is what you believe, figure out why and keep your thinking logically consistent' and 'here's the title of a few good books you might want to read'; they sent me on a voyage of discovery that will likely never end. The cost of this instruction by the way, has been that of the books themselves, and the treasured and all too rare opportunity to provide reimbursement to those instructors through the purchase of an adult beverage.

I understand that not all were or will be as fortunate however, and the cost of a college education continues to rise.  While the rest of the world is suffering in the economic malaise and many commercial concerns are seeking strict cost cutting measures, the world of academia seems to be living a far different existence.  Many universities across the country are building new dormitories to provide what most would consider 'high-end amenities' to current and prospective students.  Sports facilities, long a source of contention between academics and alumni, likewise continue to be erected or upgraded in an effort to attract the best and brightest on and off the field.

At a time of complaints over the reductions of aid to education by states already strapped for cash is demonized, pay continues to increase for both instructors and administrators.  Here in Kansas, the Board of Regents approved modest increases of 1.8% for all; but in spite of the tough times, slightly larger ones for some who they felt were being paid less than their peers.  Kansas State's Kirk Schultz's pay will go from $350,000 to $400,000, President of Pittsburg State Steve Scott's compensation will go from $213,000 to $248,000, Hays State's Ed Hammond's pay will jump from $222,860 to $255,200.  By comparison, the increases of University of Kansas Chancellor Bernadette Gray-Little from $425,000 to $432,650 seems hardly worth mentioning (except that she's making over $400k); as does the increase of Wichita State University's Don Beggs from $277,160 to $282,150.  (And don't get me started on the pay of full professors, the madness of  the tenure system, how much of their responsibilities they delegate to TA's and graduate students, or the concept of paid sabbaticals.)

I know that Universities, like other businesses, seek to attract the top flight administrators; and compensation is certainly a way to do that.  While recognizing this necessity however, I cannot help but deplore what at best is an example of poor public relations and at worst an almost intolerable insensitivity to current economic realities shown by such compensation packages. 

Perhaps those camped out and sleeping under tarps in places where they aren't allowed to do so might want to redirect their faulty target identification systems from the fat cat bankers who loaned them the money for an education they can't find a use for to the institutions of learning that accepted that borrowed money in what they believed was a legitimate contract to provide them with not only an education, but a future.  (A situation which has apparently been solved now by insuring that most if not all student loans in this country will come henceforth from the government.)  Perhaps they might also set their sights on those in Washington DC who strangely seem oblivious to the fact that education costs have been going up at rather startling rates lately.  

I fear however, that until we either stop telling young people that they need a college education to succeed in life, or start telling everyone in this country that tuition rates have been going up at twice the rate of inflation since 2000, those entering universities around the country will indeed be seeking and getting a 'higher education'.



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