Education: Haves and Have-Nots

Last Sunday, The New York Times had a front-page story on the problems faced by students from economically disadvantaged backgrounds. While the story highlighted the specific problems of three minority females, my wife the university professor sees the same problems played out by white students in a state university with a very small minority population. Despite an apparent proliferation of loan and aid programs for students of modest means or less, the graduation gap between economically poor students and those of more affluent means is now wider than it was thirty years ago. Although the graduation rates of most ethnic/economic subgroups have improved, the rates for those of means have improved far more than that of those from poorer backgrounds.

Why has this happened? There are a number of reasons, and the Times article, frankly, didn’t emphasize nearly enough some of the root causes. The principal reason, from what my wife and I see, is that the growth of tuition has outstripped the growth of available grants and scholarships. The reason for the growth of tuition at state universities is not, contrary to popular opinion, because of high salaries for full-time faculty, not at a time when most state institutions have been freezing salaries or holding raises to one or two percent, or reducing full-time professors and replacing them with part-time adjunct faculty, but because for almost a generation, state legislatures have been reducing the funding of their public institutions at the same time as enrollments have continued to increase. Higher enrollments require more buildings and larger classes, or more classes taught by less qualified instructors… and, most important, higher tuition.

At my wife’s university, and at all the public institutions in the state, funds for scholarships and grants, even federal grants, have not kept up with the cost of tuition. If colleges and universities offer full-tuition and room-and-board scholarships, then the number of available scholarships goes down as tuition rises. If they offer the same number of scholarships, then those scholarships no longer cover tuition and room-and-board. Either way, that means that economically disadvantaged students must either borrow funds or find part-time or full-time work. My wife has watched student after student become swamped with debt or spending so much time working that they cannot spend the time to study and to succeed academically. In addition, all too many have other problems created by their past, such as poor study habits and even worse judgment. More affluent students also have these problems, but they often have personal safety nets, such as parents who can support them while they waste too much time learning with bad study habits and behavior that detracts from academic success.

In addition, in many fields, merely taking classroom courses isn’t enough for future success. For example, in the hard sciences, students need to take laboratory courses, and those are invariably later in the day – and often students who work find themselves in an impossible situation. If they try to follow an educational path that would pay more in the future, they can’t work the hours they need to pay for that education, yet taking a more “standard” curricula ends up giving them a degree with a major in a field that is already glutted. The majority of students who succeed in music and the performing arts – and many do, despite the rhetoric – are those who not only take the classes, but who do all the extra activities, which include performing and rehearsing long hours, often without credit. This becomes almost impossible for students who are entirely self-supporting, except for the one or two that come along every few years who are truly brilliant and gifted, and even for them, it is close to impossible.

But each year the situation has become worse as the legislature funds less and less, and tuition climbs, and professors’ incomes are frozen, and more adjuncts are hired, and poorer students work longer and longer hours and get deeper and deeper in debt.

All of this doesn’t even take into account the fact that primary and secondary schools are failing to instill certain basic skills required for both academic and occupational success. When more than a third of all students graduating from secondary schools do not have the writing skills to compose – without electronic aids – a single coherent paragraph, and when the majority lack any semblance of analytical skills, it’s no wonder that students who are preoccupied with finding the money to even attend college are dropping out or failing in huge numbers.

But the great debate remains about how federal and state taxes are too high.

13 thoughts on “Education: Haves and Have-Nots”

  1. Thomas R. says:

    Here in Texas, the mantra is the same from the Republicans who run the state government. We will not raise taxes! The roads and highways are in bad shape, except for the tollroads. The state gasoline tax is the same as it was 30 years ago when I moved here. Do not raise taxes, even for infrastructure or education, and then wonder why all we can provide for our young is low paying jobs!

  2. AndrewV says:

    Mr. Modesitt,

    One of the complaints I have heard from seasoned professors is that the number of school administrators has skyrocketed over the past couple decades. The complaint is that these support staff require salaries, benefits, and somewhere to do their work… all of which bloats budgets while directing resources away from students.

    Have you or your wife noticed this? If so, are these admins really that vital or is this a layer of bureaucracy that can be cut back?

  3. Statistics at my wife’s university indicate that while the student population over the past 20 years has almost tripled, the administration employees have more than tripled, and full-time faculty has increased only about 40%. And neither one of us thinks all of the administrative employees are necessary, particularly since they continually require more data and reports from teaching faculty.

  4. Steve says:

    The true root of the problem lies deeper still. The parents of these poor students are more likely to:
    -place less importance on education
    -spend less time with children
    -not follow up on children’s homework
    -not follow up with teachers
    -not teach self discipline
    -not require activities that teach discipline
    -allow activities that may worsen attentiveness
    -have physical and mental illness
    -impart physical and mental illness to their children
    -use drugs and tobacco
    -misuse alcohol and prescription medication
    -be sexually promiscuous and have a high birth rate
    -discipline inappropriately
    -create an environment not conducive to intellectual development

    Unfortunately much of this suffered by the “have-not” students at the hands of their parents cannot be overcome by Pell Grants.

  5. The parents are also more likely to resent discipline in the classroom, although this appears to be true of a wide range of parents.

  6. Gordon Long says:

    We need to cut unnecessary spending and then raise taxes to what ever levels are required to bring down the cost to students. We need to decide what the student should spend including nothing at all. We also need much more emphasis on job training.

  7. Joe says:

    The problem seems simple enough: familiarity breeds contempt. So far we have tried keeping the majority illiterate and educating them. The first alternative worked well for Catholic priests who seemed vastly educated for being literate and were held in awe. However educating them seems only to result in them thinking that everything’s trivial, and that every answer Googleable.

    A real world symptom is the number of unfilled open positions in tech despite massive unemployment, the difficulty is finding even a glimmer of problem solving ability in prospective candidates. When many lie, and most find formatting a resume a major achievement, it’s a little less surprising.

    The result is at first bewildering: jobs requiring competence are vastly undervalued versus those requiring little. Only once one remembers that it takes competence to recognize competence is the riddle solved. Most authors know that really creative works sell less well than the formula variety.

    Simultaneously it results in gullible juries who award billion dollar verdicts for patent infringement. Little do they understand that obtaining a patent now only requires a pulse and the ability to fake fluency in technobabble. (The system no longer works since patent examiners have less that 4 hours to examine patents, can only reject them with proof of prior art, and do so to the irritation of their bosses).

    Universities are hardly the victims in all this. In fact they are one of the main perpetrators. I have seen my cousins rack up debt to attend popular courses of no intrinsic value. “The history of witchcraft” for instance, I kid you not. Universities now peddle certificates to enter “the professional workforce”, not unlike the Catholic church sold indulgences to enter heaven.

    It seems Universities are raising the corruption bar even higher by raiding actual wealth creators. Take CMU for instance. It just scored a patent victory against Marvell Semiconductor, for patent violation. The patent covered technology that has little competitive value, and it should not have been granted since it violates prior patents and the existing state of the art. Nevertheless the jury awarded CMU a fine so large that it is worth more than Marvell itself. During a recession, it’s clearly a great idea to destroy a US high tech employer. CMU’s future graduates in particular will be delighted not to find a job, since it was the rest of the US economy (in particular Google, Amazon and the NSA) that benefitted from Marvell’s lowering the cost of hard drives.

    Arrogance, and stupidity all in a single package, how efficient. It seems few these days have the self-honesty to remember that we all stand on the shoulders of giants.

    1. Ryan Jackson says:

      That’s part of the circle and cycle though, not orignated by the university. It took the action, however wrong others see it, as a way to gain capital to fund the school. Which is nessecary because the standard ways no longer provide all that is needed.

      As an aside, you mention the frivolty of “The History of Witchcraft”. Are you again courses covering the history of Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, Tao, etc? Just wanted to check where you stood there so as to better grasp the point you were making.

      1. Joe says:

        I find it difficult to reconcile taking on a large debt burden with studying something that will not benefit you later. Had my cousin been rich, it would matter little, but that’s not the case.

        But even so, I am underwhelmed by how little impact the course had my cousin. Had the course resulted in a true scholar of history, I would have considered the effort worthy. Understanding people’s migration flows, the impact of demographics, how ideas propagate, how systems of laws and economics define the scope of human endeavors, how people acquire and maintain power over others, and how change occurs are all valuable. Understanding that much of history is not fact but is in fact a form of story-telling trying to impart some implicit outlook is also valuable. Interpretation is rife throughout books about history. For instance, many biographers of dictators bring up personal anecdotes about the dictator’s life to explain his behavior when game theory suggests he had little choice if he was motivated to survive. Learning this kind of level of critical thinking would indeed be useful in real life, and had my cousin shown a better grasp of it I would be less skeptical.

        So no I’m not stating that one cannot study the history of witchcraft deeply and benefit from understanding how the Catholic church misrepresented existing religions to develop its own power base, but I think my cousin would have benefited more from a wider but more critical study of history that shows the underlying patterns.

  8. Wine Guy says:

    Taking ‘useless courses’ in college is part of gaining a well-rounded education. It’s a university, not a trade school. If the person were studying to become a mechanic or electrician, ‘History of Witchcraft’ might be superfluous, but the purpose of a university/college is to create a well-rounded education with a broad base of study.

    My degree is in Biochemistry, but I certainly use skills learned in Speech Communications, Economics, and Spanish language classes more than I do my Advanced Genomic Menipulation course. How many physicians are out there who can’t explain the simplest of medical issues without falling into jargon and techno-speak? How many are divorced/bankrupt/miserable in their jobs because they have nothing outside of work? Thousands, if not tens of thousands.

    My personal opinion is that college needs to teach a WIDER base of curricula. Overspecialization in too many professional fields is one of the problems we have today: too many different shaped pegs and too many different shaped holes.

    Tuition is a different beast: many schools have come to the conclusion that it is easier to harvest federal/state/student dollars than it is to actually look at trimming their own budgets. The number of administrators at the local JC is ridiculous. There are 2 for every three faculty (whether they are full time, part time, or adjunct). Fortunately, there’s a new president there and she’s cleaning house a bit. Unfortunately, that means layoffs for white collar workers who really have nowhere else to go, or for union people who then slap the JC system with grievances or lawsuits.

    Does the university NEED the new building or can they make use of existing space? Does the college NEED a better sports arena or can the president tell the athletic director to go pound sand? MUST the college have 24 sports at the varsity level? Why doesn’t the NFL pay for college football, since it clearly benefits from a farm league for which it clearly has a vested interest (i.e. be more like baseball and hockey)? Why CAN’T tenure be revamped?

    There’s plenty that can be worked on at colleges that would reduce tuition and very few of them are willing to swallow the bitter pill to make things better. Kinda like Congress and the CINC.

  9. EXCEPT… that state college and university presidents have their hands tied by state legislatures. My wife’s university, as I’ve mentioned, has tripled in enrollment over the past two decades. Classrooms are often overcrowded, and many of the faculty teach overloads, and work long and extra hours without pay [with minimal raises (1-2%), when there are any, since salaries have been frozen six out of the past 18 years, and in some areas, the university can’t find enough truly qualified adjuncts, since there aren’t enough full-time faculty. Yet the legislature has capped the number of full-time faculty [but not administrators], and my wife teaches in a fifty year old building designed for one-third the number of students enrolled in the program. Of course, we do have a new football stadium with recently installed astroturf and a new swimming pool, and the head coaches make more than any of the faculty in my wife’s department.

  10. Carl says:

    THE PROBLEM IS MOSTLY IQ
    (And IQ is mostly genetic)

    Smart people are a lot richer than stupid people. Which is why rich people’s children are a lot smarter than poor people’s children.

    Ironically, the more we try to create equal opportunities for everyone to succeed, the worse that problem will get (because it will become even more of a meritocracy).

    Anything you do to improve teaching will help the smart people far more than the stupid people, and make the gap bigger, not smaller.

    And the fact that none of you noticed that, says a lot about your education system and it’s teaching of analytical thinking.

  11. Your missing several points. First, genetically speaking, IQ tends to revert toward the mean over generations. In a meritocracy, that means that the children won’t necessarily have the same level of talents as the parents, BUT wealth allows greater opportunity to use natural talent. That’s why very few truly rich people come from poor backgrounds. From middle-class backgrounds, yes, but few from poor backgrounds. Second, intelligence itself, while vital for great success, is far from sufficient. Education/knowledge/experience and ambition are also required. Third,the structure of our society does not reward great achievement in all fields equally, or even close to it. A highly talented professional athlete with moderate intelligence and some common sense will most likely end up far richer than the most brilliant scientist.

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