The reason I watch less and less political campaign coverage these days is that most of it is nonsense designed to enflame partisans rather than solve problems.
A prime example is the debate about “free college,” backed by Democratic candidate Bernie Sanders. According to a column in the March 8 Leader-Telegram by Josh Hoxie, a poll by The Hill newspaper showed 58 percent of Americans support this idea as well as canceling the roughly $1.5 trillion in student debt.
If that’s true, so much for the spirit of self-reliance that built this country. Remember, there is no “free college,” “free health care” or free anything of value. If you’re getting something and not paying for it, someone else is, and before that someone is me, I want to explore other avenues.
I realize paying for college has become more difficult. According to Forbes magazine, the average cost for four-year institutions (public and private) is $104,480 over four years. The comparable cost for the same four-year degree in 1989 was $26,902 ($52,892 adjusted for inflation).
To its credit, UW-Eau Claire is far under that average. According to the university website, UW-EC charges $17,000 a year for tuition, fees, room and board. About half is tuition and fees ($8,870).
Meanwhile, according to figures from the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis, average annual growth in wages was only 0.3 percent between 1989 and 2016. In other words, the average cost to attend college rose nearly eight times faster than wages.
Why the increase in the cost of college? Some reasons given are increased demand, greater availability of financial aid to lure prospective students, a lack of increases in state funding to keep up, a need for more faculty members and skyrocketing student services.
That last item jogged my memory about something I read a while back about Louisiana State University building a “lazy river” for students to go tubing in their free time. I double-checked, and sure enough, LSU charges students $200 a semester in fees to pay off its $85 million recreation center that includes a 536-foot lazy river in the shape of the school’s initials. Campus officials reportedly justified the cost by calling it a “health and wellness project.”
This white elephant is an extreme example of waste, but campuses increasingly are upping their public relations games in an effort to draw students. Think about it: Every 100 students paying $20,000 translates into $2 million in annual revenue. That’s why college officials want to offer bigger and better dorm rooms, student centers, recreational facilities, etc., than “the competition.” Those officials also wait anxiously every year hoping U.S. News and other publications rate them highly in various categories relative to their peers.
I strongly believe in the value of an on-campus education to help young adults grow in all facets of their lives rather than just chasing good grades. A vibrant campus is good for students, staff and the community at large that benefits from all the interesting things going on there.
That said, the UW System is in position to be a real leader in reducing the cost of a college degree, but it would have to include buy-in from faculty and staff, and I don’t see that happening.
Here’s my idea: Most students take entry-level courses to satisfy basic requirements of a bachelor’s degree. Such courses may include biology, history, economics, geography, etc. I imagine most if not all UW System campuses offer the same courses.
With the tools of modern technology, why not have one professor broadcast the lectures systemwide? This would require far fewer faculty and free the remaining profs to focus on upper-level courses. Details would have to be worked out to have folks supervise tests and grading, and to answer student questions that arise from the lectures and readings.
To make this more palatable, my plan would include a long phase-in period. No faculty would be laid off; they just wouldn’t be replaced when they leave.
Campuses here and everywhere have incorporated online degree programs into their offerings for students who don’t care about (and maybe can’t afford) fancy dorms or lazy rivers. And as college costs continue to rise much faster than wages, the future belongs to those who reduce the cost of legitimate degree programs, as opposed to scams such as, oh … I don’t know … Trump University.
I know all the reasons my idea is doomed, including talk that it would destroy campus autonomy, squelch innovation at the local level, etc.
Paying for college is a real issue for all of us. If qualified students really can’t afford college, that means we won’t have enough teachers, nurses and many other professionals to meet the demands of the future.
But before anyone invites everyone from high achievers to likely dropouts to go to college on my dime, I want to make sure the people running public universities do everything in their power — and I mean everything — to offer the best education possible at the lowest cost.
I’m not sure that’s the current situation.
Huebscher is a contributing columnist and former Leader-Telegram editor. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.