Thursday, March 10, 2011

How Stupid Can Education Be?

   University tuition, we learned yesterday, is going up again because of a “tight budget,” while hundreds of millions of dollars have been allocated for fabulous, “top of the line” and “state of the art” campus buildings, some designed by "world class" architects.
    Do we in this country EVER get our priorities straight?

    Once upon a time, Socrates sat under an olive tree, arranged his toga to preserve his modesty, and enjoyed a few moments of contemplation before his admiring students arrived. They got what they came for – knowledge -- and the simplicity of their “classroom” doesn’t seem to have been a problem.
   When I attended the University of Utah 40 years ago, pretty much anyone could afford to go. Student debt was unheard of, as far as I know. Many of my classes were conducted in the Annex, an old military building that was not beautiful at all: It was a bunch of classrooms connected by hallways, with not a dazzling detail in sight. We didn’t care!  The only issue was whether the teacher was any good. Quite often, he was.
     Night after night, we hear on the evening news that we are near zero inflation. Even when food and fuel are taken into account (why are they ever NOT taken into account?) inflation is about three percent. 

   So why is it that tuition at the U. has been rising at about 10 percent a year and, according to a Salt Lake Tribune article yesterday, has more than doubled in the past decade? It is over $6,000 now – plus books and fees – and the financial strain is a chronic distraction for students who want to get the most possible from the college experience. 
    The latest increase, of between 7 percent and 9 percent, will only hurt students – or even deter some from going to college at all – at a time when our country needs more than ever to have an educated, enlightened citizenry. The increase will create more student debt, even as many students already face thousands or even tens of thousands of dollars in outstanding student loans. Federal funding for Pell grants has been cut. I can’t remember the last time I spoke to a student whose studies didn’t suffer because he had to work – sometimes full-time, sometimes several part-time jobs 
    But the Legislature, Board of Regents and University administration would rather erect stunning new buildings, and overpay a legion of administrators, than to make college affordable.
    James Wood, director of the U.'s Bureau of Economic and Business Research, estimates that construction on college campuses accounts for at least a third of nonresidential building in Utah, according to the Deseret News. Governor Herbert’s web site last autumn announced that more than  $94 million would be allotted to several building projects at the University of Utah and Utah State University. The University of Utah’s “Together we Reach” campaign collected $162 million for building projects between 2005 and last year – and less than half that much for student scholarships. The U. currently has 11 major building projects in various stages. The campus is becoming more expansive and gorgeous every year, but my reaction is “so what?” Who is benefiting?
   According to data released just last week, most students graduate from college with little if any improvement in their ability to reason, express themselves or acquire knowledge. At least they got to waste their time in stunning facilities. And it's a lot easier to design and construct a ravishing, swooping glass-and-steel monument than it is to inspire students to love learning. So just keep those bulldozers coming!
     Because of skyrocketing costs and callously misused funding, education -- like health care – has become unsustainable in its present form. How much of a student’s tuition, and of “education funding” in general, is actually spent on instilling knowledge? 

    The University has erected over the years a massive superstructure of administrative and ancillary functions, grand buildings and sweeping, exquisitely manicured terrain, that loom -- quite stupidly, in my opinion -- over the simple and beautiful interchange between a teacher and his students that is the purported mission of the institution.
    Even as we pour more millions of dollars into architectural wonders, our bloated brick-and-mortar institutions become less relevant. One has to wonder (or maybe it's quite obvious) which vested interests are behind this ongoing building boom. There is a lot of money changing hands, and lots of egos being stoked, but what does it have to do with education?

    Students increasingly have access to excellent lectures and supporting materials online. The campus as we know it is becoming more and more anachronistic, both for that reason and because few students today can afford to have any sort of “campus life.” They attend their required lectures and then flee as fast as they can, to fulfill their work or family obligations. 
    This vast and mindlessly expanding ivory-tower empire cannot endure if we are ever again to offer higher education that is affordable to the average person. Each year, the price becomes more outrageous. Each year, our model for delivering knowledge becomes a pathetic throwback to the good old days. Each year, as our educational system loses ground to one country after another, the status quo endangers our national security and our economic supremacy. Saddest of all, we fail to prepare our young people for the fulfilling, productive lives they deserve.