Sunday, September 24, 2017


Don’t just watch the ball.

My Dad took me to my first professional baseball game when I was nine.  I had seen some on tv, but the Rochester Red Wings at Silver Stadium -- back before pigeon droppings consigned it to the dustbin of history -- offered a different experience.  At one point he pointed to a player shifting position in anticipation of what the batter would do.  He was just trying to help me understand what was going on.  I don’t remember the specifics, but I vividly remember the feeling that you could absorb a lot by looking where the ball wasn’t.  On tv, the camera pretty much followed the ball, but in person, you could look wherever.  Sometimes the most important or interesting stuff is happening where the ball isn’t.

I think of it as the “meanwhile…” principle.  While you’re focused on shiny object A, unnoticed events B and C are unfolding, and they may wind up mattering a lot more.  

In higher education, we have plenty of shiny objects to look at.  There’s the graduation rate, concerns about student debt, fears about job placement, and the omnipresent concerns that someone, somewhere, might have a political opinion.  Most of those are valid, at some level, but there’s a lot of ignored “meanwhile…” going on.

So, here’s one.  While we’re focused on a gradual enrollment drop, flat aid, and incremental improvements to student success, our health insurance premiums continue to climb at a double-digit rate.  This year at my college they’re up 13 percent.

That’s the kind of increase that inexorably reshapes the contours of the possible.  It barely counts as news, because it has been going up at roughly 10 percent per year for a while now.  But cumulatively, the impact is devastating.

Within higher education, we don’t talk about it much, because it isn’t unique to us.  Outside of higher education, health insurance draws plenty of attention, but rarely with any connection to a labor-intensive industry filled with highly educated people.  The one area where the connection routinely gets made is in discussion of adjuncts, but there, the focus is usually just on the cost to the adjunct of going without.  That’s a valid concern -- hell, it’s a scandal -- but it misses the “why.”  

With every passing year, total tuition revenue goes up a percent or two; state aid remains flat; local aid remains flat; and health insurance climbs by double digits.  Play that out for, say, five years, and see what happens.  

It isn’t pretty.  It makes union contract negotiations that much harder, because both sides of the table are squeezed ever harder by a third party that simply dictates what it will take.  It makes balancing the budget a fresh challenge every year, because the heroic measures of last year are swamped by yet another increase this year.  In the context of local planning, it operates like a natural disaster, except that there’s nothing natural about it.

A couple of days ago I was doing a volunteer shift at a local museum, and got to chatting with the receptionist in a slow moment.  She said that she’s a music graduate looking to break into the arts; for now, she’s working two part-time jobs in the arts.  As she put it, “I have until 26.  Then, I’ll need a job with benefits.”  A part of the Affordable Care Act that was intended to take pressure off of young people just starting out -- and does, to some extent -- also works as a Sword of Damocles.  She’s acutely aware of her time running out.  I couldn’t blame her.

When the ground rules get less forgiving every single year, it’s easy to blame people for the choices they make within those rules.  But when we do that, we miss the fact that the rules themselves weren’t handed down from the mountaintop on stone tablets.  We’re so busy following the ball that we don’t notice the outfield walls moving farther out after each inning.

For example, it’s possible to decouple health care from employment.  Most advanced countries do.  Do that, and many of the dilemmas we’re struggling with now become moot.  

But we don’t.  Instead, we blame individuals for the choices they make under circumstances that get a little more constrained every single year.   

Yes, pay attention to the usual indicators.  But the “meanwhile” story is shaping those indicators far more than we usually recognize.  Don’t just look at the ball.  Look at the rule book.