Privatization of Higher Education Deserves Scrutiny and Skepticism

On March 18th, 2015, the Illinois Senator Bill Brady (R-Bloomington) proposed a new set of hardened news rules for students to adhere to if they want grants from the good people of Illinois (News-Gazette, 3-24-2015). Senator Brady’s bill, SB 1565, creates a repayment schedule for students who have received a grant. Students who complete their degree and graduate are to repay 50% of the grant value. Students who do not graduate, withdrawing from college or fail out of college, are expected to repay the full grant amount.

A couple of thoughts. First, I’m not sure repaying 50% of the grant is particularly reasonable. The student having graduated, fulfilled their obligation to use their grant money to obtain an education. Having to repay a once all of the obligations of the grant are fulfilled sort of goes against the nature of a grant. Having been an educator in higher education since 1997 and a recipient of grant money myself I would not have been particularly happy to have grant repayment added to my $18,000 of student loan debt.

On another side of the issue I am not pleased when I know people are getting grants knowing full-well they have a little intention of completing a degree program. Same goes for student loans. I know why the federal government has become hardened to the issue of student loans – the money has been taken advantage of by naive and unscrupulous post-juvenile adults and their families. One could always tell when student loan money arrived by the screams of high-rev motorcycle engines blasting through city streets. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, guys would use their loan checks not for school but head out to the closest motorcycle dealership and pick out the prettiest crotch rocket they could afford, and then find some naive and vain young lass to race through town with. I’m sure all of that was exhilarating and memorable but U.S. taxpayers should not have to subsidize a post-adolescent lifestyle.

Grant and loan money should go to people who want and need to improve their lives, the lives of their families, and the atmosphere of their community, not for people to spoil themselves with instant gratification. People using grant money, or student loan money for that matter, should be obligated to use the money for academics, including textbooks, laptops, software, groceries, and to supplement living expenses. At times, spending money on a car is legitimate, especially if the car is the sole source of transportation to school and work as is often the case in rural communities and among what are called “suitcase colleges,” where kids travel back to mom and dad on the weekend. Many degree programs require traveling, such as teacher education. Students in training to be teachers often must drive long miles simply to attend school (an hour or so, one-way); then, the student must travel to three or more schools to accumulate observation hours necessary to qualify for teacher certification. Nursing and other health care related fields are precisely the same way. Furthermore, as more programs entertain internship programs, those students often are not paid, or if so, probably don’t receive a stipend large enough to cover simple living expenses. Finally, study abroad programs are a fantastic opportunity to gain new perspectives on people, language, and culture. Employers relish the students who have broken down their fears of traveling abroad to expose themselves to the wealth of knowledge and wisdom gained from traveling and studying abroad.

To me, the use of grant and student loan monies to support the activities I mentioned above are legitimate uses of government funds. We spend far too much worrying about money and the use of the money; we need to spend more time helping mentor and coach students in finding appropriate education majors, or tracks, however. When I was in college, when I began college at a local community college, I paid about $27/credit hour. Yep: $27 per credit hour. I could take a 3-credit hour course for less than $100. I could try a course; if I didn’t like the course, no harm done. I was out of $81 plus a book. I began as an engineering major; after accumulating 80-some hours of science credits, I explored English, Business Law, and Accounting. Not that engineering was boring; not that at all. I was eating, breathing, sleeping, and dreaming engineering; I needed a break to allow my brain to decompress and I knew I was interested in other things besides science. What if I was making a poor choice? What if Business Law was a better calling? Or, Accounting? Or, geographical information systems and geography…?

People still need to be able to test the waters, so to speak. Exposing high school students and even middle school students to science, math, accounting, health fields, marketing, business, and the law are all good things. No telling what seeds are being planted. Just don’t expect those seeds to grow into anything for a while. How is a child barely through puberty supposed to make a career decision at 18, or 19, or 20? What has that person experienced, other than the influence of adult personalities pushing them in certain directions? Yet, higher education is becoming more and more about corralling new adults into making choices based on little to no information and then holding them accountable for the loan money they borrowed to earn a degree for something they don’t even know if they like or not, and “What the hell am I supposed to do with a degree in Organization Communication, anyway?” Or, worse, a degree in Art History. Or, equally worse, a degree in Sociology or Psychology only to discover the really fascinating aspects of those degrees is experienced only after achieving a Master’s Degree. “What do you mean, you don’t plan on going to Graduate School? You do want a job, right?”

Which brings me around in a true hyperbolic course to the point of my essay: privatizing higher education deserves scrutiny and considerable skepticism. At first blush, the notion of the privatization of higher education seems a horrible, rotten, no-good, very bad idea for a variety of reasons. To be upfront, Senator Brady stated in his idea of privatization public institutions of higher education would be redesigned as private not-for-profits. I am curious about the “private” aspect of public higher education. Does this mean universities would not have to disclose…what? Their entrance requirements? Their selection process for incoming students? Perhaps a more interesting question might be: “Who is going to be underwriting the cost of the college or university?

Private, not-for-profit colleges and universities tend to have other groups underwriting their expenses or are affiliated with a special-interest group. For example, Brigham Young University is supported by the Mormon Church. Liberty University is the largest Evangelical Christian university in the world. I am certainly guilty of cherry-picking my examples, if only to prove a point. Transitioning from a public not-for-profit to a private not-for-profit can create some interesting bedfellows, or perhaps ensure those bedfellows look like and behave like every other bedfellow.

I’m going to brainstorm two scenarios for Illinois. The first storm might involve transitioning, say SIU-Carbondale, into a private not-for-profit. For the sake of argument, let’s say the Pentecostal Church of God, headquartered in Bedford, Texas, with a membership of about 600,000 decided to underwrite the cost SIU-Carbondale. Would this be allowed, for a large religious institution to become the chief affiliate for the university? If so, what new rules might they put in place? Would they terminate all LGBTQ employees? Would they expect students to attend a certain number or selection of religious studies courses? Would they intervene in the teaching of some subjects, such as genetics, evolution, biology, or earth science? Would they mandate all course be taught from a Christ-centered or Bible-centered perspective? Would they expect all enrolling students to be baptized, or willing to be baptized upon admission? As BYU, would they mandate a certain amount of time be volunteered for mission trips? How might faculty be reigned in by decrees against speaking about societal or scientific concerns, if said speech goes against the tenets of the underwriting agency?

Let’s deepen the pool some. Supposed a number of religious organizations decide each is capable of underwriting a public university. Many student would then apply for and receive federal student grants and loans. These monies would then be used to support education at might be loosely defined as quasi-religious private not-for-profit universities. Would this not traipse completely upon the presumed division between Church and State? Would this not amount to de facto state-supported religious institutions? Currently, most of Americans turn a blind-eye towards the use of public dollars for education at private not-for-profit educational institutions. We have very good public university options, so perhaps the dollars spent at Notre Dame or BYU don’t necessarily matter in the larger scheme of things. But, eliminate public universities, turn them into private not-for-profits, and now the balance has shifted.

Another scenario I worry about with the privatization of higher education concerns intellectual property. Using SIU-Carbondale again, instead of a religious organization underwriting university expenses, suppose a couple of corporations engaged in a joint effort to manage their own university. Superficially, two large corporations like McDonald’s and IBM underwriting a university might seem really attractive. Honestly, I would be intrigued if IBM had its own 4-year university with associated graduate school. I imagine what that university might be like. Would every computer across campus be an IBM / Lenovo desktop, laptop, and tablet? Every server an IBM server? Every application some make and model of IBM database, email management, and web server? Would students be allowed to bring a non-IBM or non-Lenovo device to campus? Would every cafeteria consist of an enormous McDonald’s All-You-Can-Gorge Buffet? How would intellectual property be handled? Would their be intellectual property? Or, would everything anyone every achieved or accomplished while employed by SIU-Carbondale / IBM campus belong exclusively to IBM, or perhaps McDonald’s, like if someone genetically engineered a way for corn to taste like “secret sauce.” Currently, public universities can collaborate on a wide range of topics and research endeavors. The reality is, teaching universities must collaborate with Research-1 institutions in order to obtain any decent grant funding, and public universities are encouraged to collaborate and share resources. Universities are sources or at least mirror sites for most open source software. Some public universities design, build, and support open source software specific to certain fields or disciplines, typically in conjunction with another public entity like a state division of natural resources or division of water.

And, then I wonder, what happens to knowledge? What happens to data developed inside one of these private not-for-profits, especially if the private not-for-proft is underwritten by a consortia? Many times, a thesis or dissertation enters into the public domain. Research is published in journals accessible to most anyone, if their library can afford the journal, that is, but nonetheless, the research is made public. Should a consortia find itself in control of a university, what happens to information, then? What happens to research? What happens to the free flow of ideas, results, conclusions? Is it possible a researcher at SIU-C who shares information with a scientist at Eastern Illinois University has just committed an act of espionage? A worst-case scenario I can imagine occurs in 2031 when every public university has been transferred into the clutches of a special interest group or corporate association and now no information passes between schools, at least not without lawyers haggling over Memorandums of Agreement over what can be shared, and how much, and when, and by whom. I envision what a crushing blow upon innovation and entrepreneurship such an environment would create. Meanwhile, China soars past the United States in patents, in innovation, in research, all of which spill over into their economy and transfer of knowledge and wealth to countries not only within their influence but well into Central and South America and throughout Africa. Simply because the Central Politburo of the Communist Party of China had the vision to fund their institutions of higher learning, to support research, with the backing of 1.5 billion Chinese, firm in their solidarity of belief of the power of education.

The United States, on the other hand, can’t keep a gentle robot from being decapitated two weeks into a cross-country journey. (CNN)

I set out to author a scathing rebuttal to the idea of privatizing higher education. In doing some background work, I decided a few positive lessons might be learned from at least exploring the idea.

What initially set my teeth on edge regarding privatizing higher education is the originator of the Illinois bill is a member of the GOP. Twenty-plus years ago I would not have noticed. Today’s political climate finds me completely distrusting of any Republican idea concerning education. The Republican Party had morphed into a party of science deniers, seeking to establish science panels to decide the appropriateness of research topics, as if they would know or understand 1/100th of the topics they might have to review. The House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology consists of climate change deniers, science deniers, and members like Dana Rohrabacher who believes climate change is a “total fraud” (The Nation, 10-2013). In February 2015 during a Senate speech about climate change, Senator Jim Inhofe (R-OK) famously brought a snowball onto the Senate floor as a means to disprove climate change. What Inhofe clearly displayed however was his inability to demonstrate his knowledge of the difference between “weather” and “climate” and also demonstrate any capability of understanding global climate trends beyond Washington, D.C., or his home state of Oklahoma.

The GOP, time after time, consistently misunderstand science and seek to undermine science education with pseudo-religious nonsense like Intelligent Design. Furthermore, GOP support of school vouchers will guarantee the failure of some inner city schools and probably some in rural areas, as well. Teacher accountability standards, while good, do not attempt to remedy anything, only seek to punish teachers who are already under tremendous psychological pressure placed upon them by feckless parents, over-worked administrators, and by some teachers who shouldn’t be in the teaching field to begin with.

Both the GOP and the Dems need to get on thing through their almighty thick skulls: Americans, by and large, do not appreciate their educational system. And they should. Education is a public good as important as our interstate highway system, as important as clean air and potable water, and is equal in importance to the Department of Defense. An educated populace almost guarantees economic success and vitality while ensuring our national security interests.

The Chinese are not our mortal enemy, nor the Russians, or the Iranians, or the North Koreans, or ISIS or whatever neo-fascist extremist group arises after ISIS. No, our mortal enemy is ourselves and we may pave the road to our own ruin by dismantling our educational systems, from K-12 all the way to our public universities. Much like Zimbabwe has now realized after breaking up their farmland into hundreds of thousands of individual tracts, they have created their own nightmare. Once, their farmland was well-organized and utilized efficiently; Zimbabwe was the “breadbasket of Southern Africa.” Robert Mugabe displaced the local landowners 15 years ago, meted out pieces of land to political cronies and voters, and now Zimbabwe must important food to feed its population.

School voucher programs and ideas of privatizing higher education do not solve the underlying issues, they only dilute the problems, carve the problems into tiny chunks to make voters feel better, and push problems onto other entities, never addressing the fundamental problem as I see it: the exceptionally callous disregard most Americans have for education. No where else in the world can we find native populations who treat education so frivolously. No where. Education is seen as either a public good, necessary for a well-functioning society; or, education is seen as a marvelous gift bestowed upon an eternally grateful individual. Except in the United States, where students complain about homework, writing, reading, and only want to learn the vocational traits they think they need to get hired, and our fine elected officials desirous of shirking the mantle of responsibility of ensuring the continued viability of our educational system and thus place responsibility potentially into the hands of special interest groups or consortia who then become de jure managers of our knowledge. PAX.

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