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.