The state of higher education today is akin to an obese person. They don’t start out super fat, they sort of gain more and more weight over time. And if higher education were to look in the mirror today, it would have more than a few fat rolls on its body.
That’s essentially the message from creative writing professor John Warner in an Inside Higher Ed blog post.
Warner explains that public universities and colleges have suffered from “slippage”:
Slippage related problems – like weight gain – are much easier to fall into than get out of. The extra pounds I put on in the ten days surrounding Christmas and New Years takes at least the entire month of January to get back off.
And if you don’t act relatively quickly, you begin to forget what everything was once like, and you lose sight of, for lack of a better phrase, “the real you.”
There are number of areas where universities can trim the fat, so to speak, but the extra weight might be most noticeable in the increased cost of a college education. The opportunity for a student to work their way to a degree has become more elusive, as figures from Warner indicate:
Thirty-five years ago, a month of full-time minimum wage work in Illinois would pay for a full year of tuition at the state flagship, the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign.
Today, it takes forty-eight weeks of full-time minimum wage work to pay tuition to the same institution.
Then there’s textbooks. Warner notes he paid $18.75 in 1990 for the 2nd edition of “Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft.” He points out the book’s list price currently is $113.80. The 9th edition sells for $89.84 on Amazon.
So how does higher ed get back on track? Well, it might be too late to return to the past:
We have slipped so far that the shape and function of higher ed is far too distorted to “get back” to what it once was.
We also shouldn’t romanticize the past as some kind of golden age. Our goal shouldn’t be to return to any particular place or time. I’m never going to be 160 pounds with actual visible stomach muscles again. Textbooks aren’t going to suddenly revert to reasonable prices.
However, Warner explains, it helps to be presented with a “stark example of slippage” to force the higher ed community to question its present state and think about where it wants to go next.
He doesn’t offer concrete solutions, but Warner implies there’s work to be done:
We don’t need perfection, but when prices force some students to choose between required texts and food, we’ve slipped too far.
MORE: University president calls on higher education to clean up its act
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