The world feels really chaotic right now. Whether you look at politics, religion, climate change, job markets, or anything else, everything seems in flux. The unfortunate part, from my perspective, is that a lot of it could be fixed with education.
The problem is, education is not readily available to the majority of the global population.
Currently 260 million children, globally, are not enrolled in school. That's over half of the entire US population. Women around the world face tremendous hurdles when it comes to receiving education. It's estimated that 131 million girls are not enrolled in school. Furthermore, even in developed nations, access to higher education disproportionally impacts women, people of color, and cis-gendered individuals.
And while I think education should be a fundamental right to everyone provided by the government (EX: all public universities in Scotland are funded by the government to enable young people to obtain a bachelor's degree), that is a hard concept for many people to grasp and support. However I think the US, for instance, could begin to tackle this problem from a different angle.
Universities, public and private, need to change the way they use funds. Full stop.
I'll use my alma mater as an example.
At the start of my first year, Iowa State University was completing a fundraising campaign with a goal of raising over $800 million to support university. As of October 1, 2010 they raised over $804 million. Nearly all of the donations were restricted, meaning the donors had earmarked their donations to fund a particular initiative that may or may not benefit the needs of the Iowa State community.
Universities all across the country, and I assume globally, run funding campaigns similar to this one. They release mission statements that pull on the nostalgic heartstrings of its alumni but how those goals and initiatives actually manifest can have some unintended consequences.
While I attended ISU, a myriad of new buildings went up. Many were for the STEM and architecture programs, as they are the money makers of the university. During that same time, several of my classes were held in older, under-utilized STEM buildings. It was fairly surprising to me to see new buildings being constructed when older buildings that were still in good shape, several recently updated, were not being utilized to their capacity. While universities have to be forward thinking and plan for growth, this did not seem like an economic use of resources. The growth of campus buildings compared to student population seemed disproportionate.
As I mentioned, most of the donated funds are restricted and many departments go underfunded and are downright neglected. In contrast to all of the new construction happening around campus, the English department was saddled with a number of concerning, though not unique, problems.
First, the English department was forced to decide whether they should continue funding graduate students that also doubled as teaching assistants or keep phones in department offices. There was no question - they chose the graduate students. They could not lose resources that were teaching required courses. In turn, many professors lost privacy as they handed out their personal cell phone numbers so their students would be able to get in touch with them. While it's an unrealistic expectation to think that liberal arts departments will suddenly receive a massive influx of funding, choosing between graduate students and office phones is an unnecessary decision for any department to make.
In addition, the English department did not have enough professors to ensure that students, both declared English majors and those seeking general education credits, could take required courses at the appropriate time to graduate in four years. I remember signing up for my second semester courses when I was told the class I needed to take in order to continue my major the following year was full. There were no plan in place for mitigating the lack of professors and influx of students. The administration office shrugged their shoulders until I brought it up to the dean of the college. For those that know me, I have no problem hiking things up the flag pole, but students shouldn't have to do that in order to take required courses. If institutions are impeding a student's ability to graduate in four years, that only piles on debt at the national level.
Then there's a different spending issue, one that puts the pressure directly onto students. Another building that was being renovated was State Gym. When it was done it had a leisure pool, a hot tub, and a giant projection screen so that you can watch the big game without ever leaving. The remodel of the old State Gym cost $52.8 million dollars, almost $10 million over budget, which was foisted onto students for the next 23 years after the grand opening in 2012. Each year, students pay an additional $214 to cover the cost of that particular renovation. While that cost is included in tuition, which can cost over $12,000 per semester, that doesn't include housing, books, food, and any cost associated with some semblance of a social life.
And while that awesome rec center seems like a lot of fun, the percentage of people using this service is much lower than the percentage of people paying for it. According to the tuition fee summary, everyone who attends the university pays into the renovation cost of State Gym, even if you're only attending for 1 credit hour.
Both of these scenarios illuminate the problem with funding and spending in education - we are paying for things that students, faculty, and staff are not using, and we are underfunding or cutting necessary programs. I think we could make higher education far more accessible by changing the way universities raise and spend money.
If I really wanted to get controversial I would say universities should slash their sports budgets (no coach needs to make $2 million a year) but America loves football almost as much as it loves guns so one step at a time.
Globally, around 420 million people would be lifted out of poverty with a secondary education, which would drastically change the government spending that so many people often complain about. There's no good reason not to address education access and inequality. But too often greed gets in the way of the conversation. We need to change this.
In reality, I can't accurately project how my suggestions would play out. I don't have access to university P&L's. But based on my experience, I think they'd be a step in the right direction. I'd love to hear what you think or hear about your own university experience.