Monday, February 27, 2017

Scholarship Shenanigans

So, after being subjected to $18 million in cuts for the fiscal year, the University of Iowa pulled some scholarships to save some cash- about $4 million or so over the long term. Parents and students predictably lost their minds- I can understand that. It's yanking the rug out from under a person- especially since they're expecting this money and maybe even relying on this money to help pay for their education. Their outrage, I have no problem with. Their expected class action lawsuit? Mazeltov, I hope you do well.

You know whose outrage I don't have time for? The State Legislature's. When Speaker Upmeyer has the nerve to rip the move as 'politics at its worst' well then, I have to call bullshit on that. Because all the Legislature has been doing for years now is cutting cutting cutting and oh my yes- did I mention, the cutting? At a certain point the cupboard is going to be bare and shitty decisions like this are going to be have to made. When you make it clear that higher education is not a priority for this state, you leave your Universities and their administrators with some truly shit decisions to make. You reap what you sew and in this case, the Legislature has been doing plenty of sewing.

(And after this little eruption of self-righteous indignation, what did we find out on Saturday? Oh that's right. Still more budget cuts.)

Part of the most frustrating part of living in America today is sorting through the change of bullshit that you have to deal with whenever power changes hands on the state or national level. We've lost our damn minds as a nation- we've settled for politics as a blood sport, which is both distinct from doing actual governing and does nothing to solve the problems of the nation. Power should not be a cudgel to club the opposition with and yet, that's what we find ourselves with.

This debate, however tiresome, is perfectly illustrated here- albeit on a smaller, more micro level than our national travails. As a state, we have to decide: what kind of government do we want? How big should it be? What all should it do? Unfortunately, that's not the conversation we're having. It's time to drown the government rat in Des Moines. Unfortunately, that does college students in Iowa no good at all- especially if they've just lost their scholarships.

Most frustrating of all: it doesn't have to be this way.

First of all, you have to acknowledge that without sustainable levels of support from the state, you're reducing your public universities to businesses. And to be fair, at this point, if you still think about the glory and honor of the noble pursuit of 'the life of the mind' in an Ivory Tower all covered in vines, you need to pull your head out of your ass. Higher education is an industry now and with state support hitting a 25 year low in 2005, (Kamanetz pg. 60) it's only becoming more so with every passing year. Tuition is going up up up and college are locked in amenities arms races to put butts in seats. College is slipping out of the grasp of young Americans with every passing year- working families have to sell their damn kidneys to afford it and even if young people (such as myself) take out loans, there's no guarantee that they'll find good enough jobs after graduation to pay them off quickly and even if they do, the burden sort of financial freezes them in place for up to a decade after graduation.

Second of all, let me say again: it doesn't have to be this way. In her excellent book DIY U, Anya Kamanetz cited what the University of Maryland system did. Not only did they start looking at ways to optimize their funding and streamline their operations, but they worked with their State Legislature to identify workforce and training needs for the state as a whole. The result was an over 30% increase in state revenues. (Kamanetz pg. 73) Kamanetz doesn't stop there with her examples of reform and outside the box thinking- her whole book is about that, but with budgets being, shall we say, not as generous as they were in times past, it's that kind of thinking that's called for. In business, life or industry, the one rule that I've found to be very, very true is a simple one: shit rolls downhill. Sooner or later, cuts imposed on the Universities from above will impact students and their ability to pay and attend college.

I get where the counter arguments come from: higher education is inefficient and wasteful- a luxury that I'm sure the bean counters and Republican legislators who view it as hostile to their party's values and beliefs- think that we can't afford. The problem is that we're rapidly approaching a decision point in the state's political discourse: do we still value education in Iowa? If, as I suspect and hope, the answer is yes, then it's incumbent upon both the Regents Institutions and the people in power to work together to find a new partnership to harness the resources of the three state schools to help fill needs for Iowa in the future. We're losing population with every decade that passes. The right investments now could pay dividends down the road.

But we need to decide that education is something we still value. We need to stop playing politics as a bloodsport and our leaders need to work together. Talk about an impossible dream.

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