Opinion Columns & Blogs

John Richard Schrock: State universities still serve a public good

My saddest duty as a university department chairman was signing the withdrawal form for one of our college students. He had a good academic record in his first two years, so I asked why he was withdrawing. He replied that his farm family from western Kansas had calculated and saved enough for him to go to school. But even with his working part time, tuition had increased the cost beyond their ability to pay.

I respect parents and students who save ahead and plan for a college education, often at great sacrifice. But the increases in tuition are now soaring beyond the ability of even middle-class families to "save up." If a student or family takes out college loans, the job prospects for paying back those loans are at an all-time low.

According to some governors, legislators, university presidents and regulating bodies, college study is now a "private good rather than a public good." That excuse is used to remove the guilt they carry for raising state university tuition year after year, an increase that exceeds the exorbitant rise in health care costs.

In the 1980s, Kansas paid nearly two dollars for every dollar paid by students or parents in tuition. Today that state share is 92 cents and falling.

The main cause of the drop in per-student state support is the near doubling of the number of high school students entering Kansas tertiary institutions since 1980. And the majority of our students today need remediation. ACT scores show that half of the students at state universities are not college-ready. For community colleges, the figures show only one-fourth are college-ready for a two-year associate degree.

The real victim of this shift to tuition-driven enrollment is the good student who now pays more than twice as much in tuition, and soon will be sitting beside far less capable students at graduation as our policymakers insist on higher graduation rates.

What does this mean for the spectrum of parents across Kansas with future college students in their families? By switching from "public good" to "private good," state administrators are abdicating their responsibility to provide the state with the intellectual talent it needs and are treating students as "customers." They want to "sell" education to customers who ultimately benefit from the higher education through higher personal salaries.

Treating the student as a customer, and shifting to what students want in the moment's popularity, does not serve Kansas. Shifting university resources to the 200 students who today want to be crime-scene investigators, thanks to "CSI" on television, will produce 190 graduates without a job. Closing down a physics department because it only produces a few nuclear physicists, when we desperately need every one and many more, directly damages the future of Kansas and our country.

State universities should be producing the engineers and nuclear physicists and other experts Kansas needs. Much of that talent will come from middle- and lower-income Kansas students — those the "private good" philosophy is increasingly excluding from our universities.

State universities should not be commercial storefront operations advertising the latest fad curricula. State universities serve a public good. If the governor and state educational regulatory bodies continue to privatize our system, we will know exactly whom to blame when our doctor shortage continues to grow and we can't find physicists for our power plants.