I have a few education blogs planned for this week, so I wanted to start with something simple that will hopefully inspire a broader discussion and as the week goes on I have some narrower topics that are more controversial. So before we get into specifics, I wanted to talk about the current discourse about education policy in America.
When I hear politicians talk about education, I hear three basic messages. They are:
- Increased access: Everyone should have access to a college education because an educated population is the way to bring quality jobs into the state of Virginia and is the way to a greater future.
- Lowering costs: This one's a combination of taxpayers being fed up with how much they're spending on a failing educational system and the "student loan bubble."
- Increasing quality (although I don't hear as much about this as the other two): We have the world's best educational system, and high-quality education is what helps us lead the world in technological development.
The interesting thing to me is that these goals are completely incompatible and that no one seems to notice nor does anyone seem to care. Increasing access means admitting students who wouldn't have been admitted otherwise. This means we are spending more money on remedial classes and tutoring services (incompatible with lowering costs), and that we're having to lower standards (incompatible with increasing quality). Lowering costs means freezing faculty salaries and cutting benefits, which means talented faculty members will begin to flee the state. This is especially true among the junior faculty who are the most likely to bring innovation to our often outdated curricula. Additionally, our universities are struggling to hire new faculty in areas where there is increasing demand, and building new facilities for science and technology related majors is quite costly as well (all of this is incompatible with lowering costs). And let's not forget that every local student who enrolls in state schools has their tuition partially subsidized by the taxpayers, so increasing enrollment by definition increases costs. These goals are clearly incompatible, but that doesn't seem to stop politicians from preaching about all of them as if they are all achievable at the same time.
Virginia is fortunate to have a world-class university system: William and Mary is quite possibly the top public liberal arts college in the nation, and the University of Virginia is one of the world's best public universities. When you add Virginia Tech, University of Mary Washington, and all of our other fine institutions of higher education on top of that, it's clear that we're uniquely positioned going into the next several decades. And while I'm sure there are some more efficiencies that can be found at the margins, we're closing in on five years of decreased tax revenue and decreased state support and most of the simple belt-tightening has been done. What we need to do is figure out our top priority for education, and pursue that. If the taxpayers want to increase access, that comes at both an economic cost and a cost in terms of quality. If taxpayers want to increase quality, then we may have to sacrifice some access and pay a little more (or cut other areas of our bloated state government). And if taxpayers want to decrease cost, then they need to realize that it will decrease quality and lower access.
We're at a crossroads right now in terms of higher education in this country. The University of California system is falling apart at the seams, which is a shame. But as a Virginian, I think it would be a greater shame if we let the same thing happen here. We need to cut the lofty, pointless rhetoric that only works in the minds of our government officials and figure out what we want higher education to look like in Virginia. Do we want to maintain one of the most prestigious university systems in the world? Do we want to increase access to students who maybe aren't ready for a college education? Or do we want to provide low-cost education regardless of quality? I can give you a blueprint for all three of these approaches, but what I can't do is reconcile all three. So what do you all think? What should we do? What do all my readers want from higher education in Virginia?