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Guest commentary / Higher Education


Retreat on funding carries real costs

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By Johann Neem
Published:
As Washington looks toward the next special legislative session, higher education is again on the cutting block. It is likely that new cuts will be forthcoming absent new taxes. As a result, the cost to students to attend college will continue to rise.
A major reason why public college tuition has been rising in Washington is not because it costs so much more to attend college these days, but because the portion of that cost subsidized by the state has declined dramatically. As the state cuts, more of the cost is borne by students and parents.
Commentators have noted the effect rising tuition has on student debt, but few have paid attention to curricular dimensions. As tuition increases, however, legislators have responded by making fundamental changes to college education that threaten to redefine college's very purpose. It is worth pondering whether this is a direction we wish to take.
At the heart of American college is what is known as "general education." In addition to one's major, college students take courses in different disciplines and areas in order to gain a broad education in the arts and sciences -- a liberal education.
General education took its modern form after the 1945 publication of "General Education for a Free Society," by a Harvard committee under its president, James Bryant Conant. Conant argued that specialization and depth must be balanced by general education and breadth. Modern universities and faculty were too focused on their disciplines, and students suffered. In Conant's words, general education refers to "that part of a student's whole education which looks first of all to his life as a responsible human being and citizen; while the term, special education, indicates that part which looks to the student's competence in some occupation."
General education takes time and money. As legislators shift the burden to students, they have sought to bypass general education requirements to make college degrees cheaper, faster to obtain, narrower in focus, and geared more directly to vocational training.
The key two programs are Running Start, which allows 11th and 12th graders to enroll in college courses at the state's expense, and the more recent "College in the High School," which urges high schools to offer college credit courses.
Both programs are designed to save the state and students money. Both send the message to students that general education is unimportant and the more quickly you can get it over with, the faster you can graduate and get on with life. Both erode the campus experience of which general education is a large part.
The last legislative session witnessed a three-pronged attack on general education. The first was the establishment of Western Governors University-Washington, which has almost no general education requirements when compared with other colleges. WGU, instead, criticizes colleges for requiring so much "seat time."
The second was a bill granting Boeing and Microsoft huge tax breaks for a scholarship fund for students majoring in science, engineering, health care and other high-demand fields. Legislators were not troubled by allowing two large corporations to determine which subjects ought to be prioritized. Students majoring in the humanities would be out of luck, as would those choosing to pursue careers that Boeing and Microsoft do not prioritize
The final prong was a bill urging colleges to develop three-year degrees for advanced students, as if avoiding a year of college ought to be a reward for hard work. In fact, advanced students may benefit the most from the arts and sciences. We should give them an extra year for free. The only explanation is that legislators consider college primarily job training and see the extra time required to gain a general education as wasteful.
If colleges wish to respond, they will have to make the case that general education matters. This will require effort. Faculty must become as committed to their general education students as they are to students in their majors, and administrators must fund smaller, more engaging courses and sequences. Students should leave college valuing their general education as much as their major.
Washington's legislators face a dilemma. Citizens want and deserve access to post-secondary education in order to get better jobs. But there are many avenues to this end, including high-quality certification and apprenticeship programs. We instead have sought to make college fit all students without being willing to fund it. In doing so, we threaten what makes distinctive a college education while forcing many students to spend years earning a degree they neither want nor need.
A more balanced approach would preserve and fund college education for students who want it, while offering quality alternatives to those who wish to get the training they need for a better job.

Johann Neem is an associate professor of history at Western Washington University.

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