Sunday, November 04, 2012

Fingers Crossed

Coming up on the election, I’ve got my fingers crossed.  

On the upside, at least the campaigns will be over.  That little girl who cried about “Bronco Bamma” spoke a basic truth: we’re all tired of the ads.  I can only imagine how bad it must be for people living in swing states.  My state has some drama of its own, but it’s pretty much a foregone conclusion at the presidential level, so that has helped contain the madness.  The folks in Ohio must be thoroughly sick of it all by now.

In a way, the action that really matters now is in the states.  It’s pretty likely that whichever candidate wins the presidency will face at least one part of Congress controlled by the other party, so the range of likely movement is relatively narrow.  But individual states can tilt pretty hard one way or the other.  The “quality control” function of a meaningful opposition party is missing in some states, which means that if the dominant party falls in love with a bad idea, there’s nobody to stop it.

California is the most obvious case; if a sales tax increase referendum fails, public higher education will take yet another in a series of brutal cuts.  (In another sense, though, California is an outlier.  Between referenda and a supermajority rule for tax increases, it’s possible to have single-party control and gridlock simultaneously.)  I’ve been pretty vocal over the last couple of years in criticizing the funding mechanism for California’s community colleges; if they’re serious about long-term sustainability, they need to tie costs to revenues one way or another.  But making an intelligent transition requires the ability to make decisions without a gun to your head.  The best-case scenario for California, other than a raging economic boom, would be to use the next couple of years to completely restructure the way colleges are funded.  In the meantime, forcing the waitlists to get even longer is not the way to go.

Unfortunately, I don’t see either party asking the right questions at the federal level.  The Republicans have forgotten their historic role as the champions of public higher education -- Nelson Rockefeller did great things for SUNY -- and have instead become boosters of for-profits.  The Democrats are more supportive of public higher ed, but their concessions to change -- notably “gainful employment” reporting requirements -- are both annoying and unhelpful.  They’re picking the wrong battles.

That said, the major issues for higher ed are indirect.  Austerity, driven by regressive tax policies and voluntary wars, creates a hostile climate for colleges.  Once the climate is set, the available choices are basically different flavors of awful.  Recessions help enrollments but devastate funding; at this point, a return to the economy of Clinton’s second term would work wonders, whoever is in power.  A long burst of peace and prosperity would be wonderful in its own right, and particularly wonderful for public higher education.

The best argument I can see for voting the other way would be to claim that public colleges won’t undergo the changes they need to without a crisis, so avoiding a crisis means prolonging the inevitable.  There’s probably some truth to that.  But I prefer optimism; give us a chance, and we’ll find better ways.  That’s vulnerable to a charge of naivete, but it’s true.

My position here is close to Jeff Selingo’s call for a new generation of college leaders who don’t deny the tough issues but want to move forward anyway.  I think that generation exists; I’d hate to see it denied the chance to save and adapt public higher ed for a country that needs it far more than it knows.

So my fingers are crossed.  There’s more at stake than just ending the ads.

Program Note: Loyal readers will want to check in on Tuesday, November 13, for a major announcement.  I’m just sayin’.