Would You Like Writing Skills With That?

telephoneIn my fantasy world, the one where I’m always just a phone call away from those making decisions (and they listen to me), our legislators would consider the following 4 things as they discuss higher education this session:

Consider inputs and outputs:
The current “sexy” idea in Austin is to tie a portion of state funding to graduation rates. The Chancellors of our state systems, political appointees all, are all gung-ho for this one (mostly, I think, because it seems like the lesser of all evils). I can support this if, and only if, we revise how we determine graduation rates and if we consider inputs and outputs. In other words, Angelo State’s graduation rate is always relatively low compared to other universities based on the state’s formula. However, that’s partly because if a student transfers away from ASU, we have to count him as a non-graduate even if that student graduates from another school. We also admit students we know are at-risk. Like many schools, over 30% of our students are in developmental classes. Any legislative formula for deciding outputs (graduation rates) must take into account inputs. Private schools often have 4 year graduate rates of 90-95% because they are very selective. Angelo State could easily increase our graduation rate if we only took students with 25 ACTs/1600 SATs from upper middle class families. Last semester, I had a student who had an 11 on the ACT. The odds of him completing his degree are somewhere between slim and none and, as my dad used to say, slim just left town. If he does graduate, though, we should get bonus points. I’m glad we let him in and that we gave him a chance, but don’t hold me accountable if he doesn’t (or can’t) do the work. If all you focus on is output, we will stop letting kids like him enroll. That’s a long term loss for the state (and the student).

Upgrade with options
The other idea that seems to be gaining traction this session is letting students lock in tuition rates for a four year span. I’ll go one step farther–let’s create a tuition model that resembles buying a car. Students come in, they see the base MSRP and they finance 4 years of higher education, paid monthly. The MSRP can be determined based on the costs of a university education. While I know those can be amorphous at times, I think we can use some standard metrics: faculty salaries, library costs, utility costs, debt service, non-faculty salaries, technology, etc. Quite frankly, if we can’t estimate with some certainly how much it costs us to educate each student, then we need to work a little harder. From this number, we subtract any state funding and that’s the base cost to the students. Each student subtracts any financial aid. If they want options, they can pay for them. Want to be involved in inter-murals? That costs X. Want to use the tutor center? Add Y. Currently, every student pays for inter-murals, undergraduate research, and other activities regardless of whether they use them. This system would only charge those who participate. Regardless of the extras, you have 4 years to get 120 hours. I’m even prepared to argue we should have two routes for this payment plan. Route one allows you to lock in a lower, non-refundable rate. If you drop out, you still owe us. (If you buy a car and only drive it on Sundays, you still have to make payments. This plan works the same way.) Don’t want to commit to a four year contract, we charge you more because you are a higher risk investment but you can get a refund if you drop out. This idea only works, though, if the state meets us halfway. If you want us to lock in tuition for students over the course of 4 years, then you start funding us using a four year model. Stop funding us and then asking us to give money back. You wonder why tuition is such a mess–universities never know how much state funding we will receive.

Open Source
Any university’s base MSRP will have to include technology costs. I’m no Luddite. I love digital cable, high speed wireless internet, my smart phone, computers, and other electronics. Technology can, if used properly, help our students perform and achieve academic success. It’s worth noting, though, that technology will not make higher education less expensive. While MOOCs seem to be the flavor of the month, note that UT invested $10 million just to start-up and join with EdX. The classes might be free to participants, but they aren’t free for UT students. That professor in front of the room—his salary is paid for by the students. But, universities could, in the long run, save money using technology. Microsoft, Adobe, Banner, Blackboard, and other for profit technologies are reaping huge rewards as they infiltrate schools and universities. In addition to the upfront cost, universities pay maintenance fees, technical support fees, and every time there is an update or a plug-in, we pay for that cost, too. Running Banner with Blackboard requires a third party plug-in for instance. Universities, in the old days of plenty, simply whipped out the check book. At some point, the legislature should require that universities begin investing in Open Source technology. The money we don’t spend sending to Microsoft, we would use to hire our own technicians. While the short term costs will be the same, instead of investing in a contract, we would be investing in human programmers, human technicians, and human IT specialists. The long term gain is taking the Open Source code and customizing our technology to meet our pedagogical needs. We could adjust technology to our learning environments instead of adjusting our learning environment to the technology. We get free of costly contracts and control technology.

Last but not least:

Stop Treating Education Like a Business
Burger King tells us they will make it our way. Whataburger tells us there is an absurdly high number of ways to order a burger from them. The customer, conventional customerservicewisdom tells us, is always right. That’s fine for Burger King. When I go to buy a burger, I know what I want and I know what a burger is supposed to have. Students, though, aren’t customers. When an 18 year old (or even a 36 year old) goes to college and tells us she wants an engineering degree, we don’t assume she knows what all is involved. If she knew that already, she wouldn’t need to go to school. If a student tells us he wants to be an accountant but he doesn’t want math on that degree, we can’t make it his way: “I would like an English degree, literature on the side, and I’ll pass on the writing. I’m trying to lose a few pounds.” A student, one who is attentive and a systematic observer, pays for access to scholars who will profess knowledge. We focus our time on what information and skills are necessary to have a particular degree and we pass that information along to the student. If they don’t do the work, they earn an F. When you throw half your hamburger away at Burger King, they don’t charge you extra, give you a bad grade, or make you buy another burger and finish it. And no one blames Burger King because the customer didn’t eat the food. Americans throw away nearly half their food every year (worth about $165 billion) but no one is blaming the farmers and restaurants. Stop blaming me because some students refuse to finish their burger, er, degree. The burger provides immediate and tangible satisfaction. First year writing classes don’t.

Educating students is a messy, inefficient task that requires just as much effort from the student as the faculty member. I don’t pretend funding higher education is an easy task, and universities, are, I think, willing to consider alternative funding options and we are willing to be accountable. But, we must stop holding colleges and universities to standards that are both inappropriate and unfair.


About John Wegner
John Wegner is a Professor of English where he also serves as the Dean of the Freshman College. He and Lana, his wife, have been married over 25 years. They are the parents of two great sons who (so far) haven't ever needed bail money.

2 Responses to Would You Like Writing Skills With That?

  1. Charge extra for intermurals? And for tutoring? That has a pretty predictable outcome, especially for the at-risk group, no?

    I generally like your arguments a great deal. And I see that the problems are real. But I’m already chafing, and you haven’t even gotten to the music students yet (who have a hourly one-to-one relationship with a teacher for four years),

    • John Wegner says:

      Good morning. Thanks for the comment. Perhaps you are correct. Charging extra means some students won’t get those extras and that can have a negative impact on engagement. It’s possible, though, that if we stop charging for those events, overall tuition, the base price, goes down. Economically challenged students can either save the money or participate. Universities, though, are being forced to make these choices. (Higher tuition for music majors has been discussed on my campus.)

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