Jan 15, 2008

On Distance Learning, Busy Lives, and American Budget Follies

Left: hour-by hour student visits to a distance learning course

I am teaching a distance learning course this semester, and I have been paying attention to the usage statistics on the site. The college at which I am teaching uses the Blackboard platform, which offers statistical analyses of a variety of user characteristics.

Now, in spite of the fact that I am a person who works with the written word for a living, I still enjoy statistics. Call me a multi-level geek, or someone who needs to spend more time outdoors, but I can appreciate the inherent beauty in numbers almost as much as well-written poetry.

Okay, perhaps not that much.

Distance learning courses are useful for people who have full-time jobs and lack the flexibility to attend classes on campus, or whose family and business lives consume much of their waking moments. Over 20 percent of the online coursework in my class occurs after 7:00 pm, and some folks are up past midnight working for this course.

At the same time that I applaud people who push themselves to attain college degrees (especially since they keep me gainfully employed and away from the bars), I am critical of an American society that increasingly pushes more of the cost of education on the students. I live in Ohio, a state that has gone from subsidizing over 65 percent of the cost of higher education in the early 1990s to slightly more than 30 percent in the current budget. The federal government has also been busy reducing subsidies to higher education, and the recent cuts in the Pell Grant program are typical of the lack of esteem with which Washington holds higher education.

There are tremendous social benefits to producing an educated workforce, and it is not only corporations who reap these gains. Highly-skilled and educated workers earn greater incomes and can better compete in the global marketplace, raising tax revenues.

Europeans seem to understand the long term payoffs from subsidizing higher education. Students in Sweden are not charged tuition, and most German states not only eschew tuition bills, but also provide grants to subsidize college living expenses. In the UK, an annual fee of U.S. $1641 is charged to students who come from households with incomes greater than $30,534. India plans an almost ten-fold increase in state expenditures for higher education in the next decade, although there is considerable resistance to plans that will raise the student tuition costs from 5 to 20 percent.

Yet, just like other areas in which our obsession with markets clouds our long term thinking, Americans continue to cling to the Gospel of Saint Adam Smith with tenacity. Many students in the classes I teach work full-time jobs while juggling college responsibilities, and quite a few of these students must also take out loans to make ends meet.

The federal government wants to dump the subsidies on the states, and the states pass back the costs of higher education onto the students. Yet it is the corporations and governments who ultimately benefit from a highly educated workforce, and who shirk from funding this needed social expenditure.

Of course, by merely asking questions of the Received Truths carved into stone by Smith's Invisible Hand, I am committing heresy, and probably opening myself up to the label of "closet Communist" or something.

So be it. Better to be scorned for telling the truth than to pretend the Emperor is fully clothed.


Anonymous said...

Amen, Brother Mike!

Anonymous said...

I'm what they call a "nontraditional student." I went back to school to complete my degree when I was 56 and I'm still working on it. Why? Because one 4 credit course costs almost $1700 and I like to eat - at least on alternate days. Tuition is sky high and I really feel for younger students who have to take out loans to get their education. But, as you said they are going to be contributors to society and the workforce. I'm just crossing off an item on my "bucket list" and doing it for the pure love of learning. There are a lot of, dare I use the word, "boomers" like me. Anyway, really liked your post. If wanting lower tuition makes one a "commie," well color me red.

The Screaming Nutcase said...

Since I'm told the average college graduate will make $1 million more over his/her lifetime than the average high school graduate, it's still a good investment on the whole.

And students are partly to blame for the increasing cost of college, as well, generally by demanding things that have little to do with education, but have to be paid for. You've seen UT's Rec Center, Mike--how many colleges had anything like that even 20 years ago? I compare the room I stayed in just 10 years ago to some of the apartment-style digs colleges are building today, and can't say that I really enjoy my tax dollars headed that way when tuition dollars seem so much more appropriate. Not to mention the fact that sports coaches often make several times what the school president makes.

historymike said...


Good luck to you in your studies. I, too, returned to school at 36 to finish my BA, and I have continued on to get my doctorate as much for the love of learning as any other reason.

historymike said...

Screaming Nutcase:

You raise some interesting and valid points about the luxurious amenities that universities must provide in order to compete for students.

I agree, also, that sports programs are quite a drain on limited university funding. The flip side, of course, is that universities that choose to provide minimal funding to sports face a loss of media attention, and can cost themselves enrollment in the long run (Berkeley excluded).

I'm not saying I agree with the American obsession with equating marquee football and basketball programs with academics, but many people make this implicit association.

microdot said...

If you want to see direct cause and effect in Americas lack of commitment to education, you need look no farther than the quality of our Congress.

engineer of knowledge said...

Hello Sharon and History Mike,
I too am a 55 year old student that has been attending for over 35 years in the effort to keep up with the exponentially changing world. When you work in industry now, you have to reinvent yourself every five years or so.
When I was in Sales and Marketing of Surge Protection for Equipment, a lot of the telecomm and datacom business was located in the Ohio Territory. I had a fellow co-worker who had worked at one time or another with every company in the industry over the years. He had been laid off or fired by everyone and he had even worked for one company three different times. The real truth was that he was very good at what he did. He had a saying, “Don’t love the company, they don’t love you.” Every time the company thought that they could get someone to do the job cheaper, did not have the insurance medical bills (his wife came down with cancer), or he had worked up to three weeks vacation, they would make up something to fire him on or just said that they had to have a lay off.
In Lee Iacocca’s book, “Where have all the leaders gone,” Dick Cheney still has stock options that have increased to over $113 million because of the last seven years based on no bid government contracts with Halliburton. While Halliburton is recording record profits, they have been underfunding the employees retirement to the tune of just 5% of what they should have. By incorporating in Dubai, the employees will have no recourse to obtain what is due to them and the retirement plan will default to the federal insured retirement fund. Yes, the citizens with their taxes will have to bail out Halliburton’s employees’ retirement fund.
Where I am going with all of this is, Multinational Corporations are ducking their responsibility to their U.S. employees’ and tax burden in this country, but will be tapping into the educational wealth that other nations have funded when it is needed. It is called Multinational Capitalistic Free Enterprise. Thomas Jefferson said, “A merchant is only loyal to the ground he is standing on at that moment.” Unless you legislate corporate responsibility, much like the laws passed at the turn of the 20th century under the Republican President Teddy Roosevelt, corporations are just going to do what they can to avoid expenditures that they can get away with.
History Mike, I would not be too concerned with being called a Communist. It does not have the same meaning that it did when you and I were growing up. Most of these Multinational Corporations have moved there production to Communist China because of the nationally dictated low wages, nationalized health care, nationalized retirement. I know you remember well when we had to send and sacrifice our youth to Viet Nam and South America to keep the Communist from taking over? Obviously it is correct and proper to embrace Communism now because Wal-Mart, GM, and many others have told us so.

steve said...

Hello China...

OH, you're the superpower now?

What WAS Britney THINKING!?

(that's my new catchphrase)

craig said...

Our leadership does not really want an educated citizenry. They could not retain power otherwise.