Tuesday, December 18, 2018

Noses Against Windows

Every year I like to catch “A Christmas Story.”  This year I’ve been reflecting on the scene when Ralphie and the family go to the department store to visit Santa.  Before they go in, Ralphie and his brother have their noses pressed against the glass of the display window, eyeing all the great stuff.

I’ve lived that a few times recently.

Several times this semester, I’ve been part of delegations visiting various four-year schools throughout the state.  In every case, the hosts have been nothing but gracious, and the visits unfailingly pleasant. But in every case, I left dispirited.  It felt like Ralphie eyeing the cool stuff in the window.

The wealth gap between sectors has hit a level that feels punitive.

In one memorable case, my compatriot and I asked the folks at a makerspace how they make money.  They shrugged and just said that yeah, the place loses millions, but progress is important. From their tone, it was as if we had asked about the weather.

The return drive was punctuated with variations on “must be nice…”

Part of the gap is because the four-year schools control their enrollment much more than we do.  They can lower their standards when the applicant pool gets thinner, thereby ensuring that seats get filled.  Put differently, they can fish in our pond. When they hold their enrollments steady, or even grow them, then the entire weight of the state’s demographic shift falls on us.  As progressively larger shares of the budget have come from students, declines in enrollment hit that much harder.

Part of it, too, is the economic class of the students each sector attracts.  Despite getting less state support per student, we’re compelled to charge much less per student.  Those gaps compound over time. A three percent tuition increase means more when tuition is $15k than when it’s $5k.  One host, trying to be helpful, explained that dorms are cash cows for the university. We don’t have dorms.

Santa, I know what I’d like for Christmas this year.  Parity of per-student funding. Not even a premium; just parity.  Just treat our students as every bit as worthy as those at four-year schools.  At some point, I’d like to be able to visit our four-year counterparts without channeling Ralphie.  I’ll even wear the bunny costume if it helps.