It Shouldn’t Be a Competition

Ha! You lost, sucker!

Ha! You lost, sucker!

Driving off to the Saint Louis airport to go to the Sociology Prom I was confronted with a familiar sight blocking my view of the Gateway Arch—dozens of signs advertising the merits of various public universities from Illinois and Missouri. The signs continue all up and down the five interstate highways coming into STL, and represent hundreds of thousands of dollars of expenditures per month just in sign rental—not including the millions paid to marketing consultants who puke out the jingoistic verbage and bad artwork, all of which is strikingly similar (especially when you travel the country and see the same shit for a different school 200 or 2000 miles away). But, we have to compete, right? If public schools don’t compete for students, then they’ll lose. But why? This is complete bullshit and an utter waste of public education resources.

State sponsored universities have a clear mission–to educate deserving students in and from their state. We shouldn’t be competing to draw in students from nearby states—yet now we give in-state tuition to students from Kentucky, Missouri, Indiana, Iowa, and Wisconsin. Indeed, for regional campuses, competition for students is anathema to their mission. States are supposed to have a flagship campus with rigorous admission standards, an elite agricultural and engineering campus in higher population agricultural states, some regional research universities depending on the population, and a set of smaller four year colleges. Students who don’t get into the flagship or engineering school but are college material should go to the regional research university or to the four year college closest to home (or furthest from home, if they prefer).

Instead, funding formulas based on body counts have led many flagships to open up enrollment, diminishing the bodies available for regional universities like my humble campus. And, this pushes the regionals to do likewise, and that trickles down to the 4 year colleges—particularly in states with declining college-age populations like Illinois. Add in competition from other states, and it is a recipe for disaster for many universities. Right now, Western and Eastern Illinois are on the brink of collapse, and Chicago State is almost dead.

We do the same thing at the University level. Colleges and departments are placed in high-stakes competition with one another. How many majors do you have? How many core curriculum students do you teach? If you can’t prove your worth in terms of credit hour production, your department is put on the chopping block. There is no vision that you can’t have a university without a physics or philosophy department. Why should physics or German have to compete for majors? At my humble university, very few students are smart enough to major in physics or math or philosophy—but we need those departments to educate people and give them a chance to be exposed to those fields. And, yes, fewer students will choose to study German than Spanish. So what? Taking that opportunity to learn away from students at regional and 4 year colleges restricts their horizons. Some students will choose German. A few may even excel and major in German. But that won’t be the case when you close the department and stop teaching German as a language option.

Competition among higher education institutions and departments helps further the right wing agenda to eliminate public education. That way, only the wealthy will be able to afford college—like when America was great.

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