Pennsylvania governor Tom Corbett recently proposed cutting funding to state and state-related colleges by up to 30%. This is a very different approach from New Jersey Governor Chris Christie’s 5.5% increase across the Delaware. The reality is that money is still tight, whether you’re talking about mom-and-pop shops or state governments. Education funding is increasingly controversial, and Christie’s move is a sign that he sees how prominent the issue is becoming in the minds of constituents. Budget cuts to California’s community college system are triggering novel—and dangerous—new responses from at least one school there.
Jordan Weissmann of The Atlantic reports that Santa Monica College will be charging $180 per credit (several times the usual cost) for the most popular courses in its summer program. Weissmann’s article examines the dispute about state grants, which the school says will help students who can’t afford the new pricetag. Opponents of the change (like the Los Angeles Times editorial board) question whether students would even qualify for those grants.
Both Weissmann and the Times agree that the school system, like many others, is in a bad place due to funding cuts, and they make good arguments for why this is a dangerous policy, how bad it would be for public and semi-public higher education if this approach gained traction at other schools, and the reality that administrators facing reduced budgets need to do something.
What scares the hell out of me is that charging more for the most popular classes is, at least sometimes, going to price some students out of those classes. Presumably, at least some of the most popular classes have that status because they are taught by extremely effective professors. Great, great professors are not common, and some people only encounter one or two truly amazing teachers in their higher education careers. More than that, things like payroll budgets and the (often simply wrong) stigma attached to community colleges in some areas probably work in tandem to keep awesome professors out of those schools. Those teachers should not be placed out of the reach of some students based on the desperate creation of new cost-per-credit frameworks in response to budget cuts by short-sighted legislators.
I know schools need to do something, and I’m sure the people making these decisions at Santa Monica College and considering them elsewhere are making good-faith efforts to do their best with shrinking finances. But there has to be a better way. I wish I was the one with the answer. I’m not. If Governor Corbett’s proposal goes through, my Temple tuition may increase, and I’ll eat the difference by taking out another loan. But more debt is the last thing anyone needs. And what about the folks who can’t even take out a loan?
Legislators have always, at least in my short, nearly three decades on Earth, been quick to slice and dice science and education budgets. They would do well to remember that they’re not just cutting budgets: they’re cutting educations. 5% here, 10% there, a class or two over there, some more money-per-credit somewhere else. This stuff will add up and eventually it will hurt the U.S. economy and damage our intellectual standing around the world. It’ll be decline by a thousand razor cuts, but it will happen (it many ways, it already has, but that’s a post for another day).
The reality is that legislators are cutting off whole swaths of the income spectrum from the chance to even compete in an already difficult job market. They’re cutting futures.
Hopefully lawmakers, school administrators, educators, students, and others among us can figure out how to stop winnowing down education funding, or at least come up with a solution that doesn’t require acceptance of the lesser of two evils.
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