Cold Mornings and Deep, Stinging Cuts
Quest for a High Quality Education Keeps Getting Tougher to Find, Afford
BY EMILY COLOSIMO
When I was a teenager my dad had the honorable task of waking me up. This usually meant yanking me out of bed, in the frigid early morning air, to go to school. Midwest winters are cold. I mean, really cold. All I simply wanted was to stay in the comfort of my warm bed but, no, I was forcibly dragged, at times, out from under the covers to go to school, whether I liked it or not.
Growing up, both my parents always told my sister and me that education was important, that school was our number one job. My parents earned college diplomas and have become rather successful in their careers. This was the path that we were encouraged to take, and after a while (years and years of cold mornings), the message sunk in. In fact, today I’m pretty sure they were right! Go figure.
Problem is, getting that important education is becoming increasingly difficult if you’re a student at a U.S. public institution. Currently, I’m a 20-year-old senior majoring in public relations at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire, a school that is losing almost a quarter of its state funds this year.
The cuts are part of a controversial two-year, $250 million reduction in funding of Wisconsin’s university’s system (26 schools and 370,000 students) by lawmakers.
Sure, the subject of budget cuts isn’t new. For generations, college students have complained about cuts. But indulge me for a moment to explain just how problematic this situation has become in 2015.
These Wisconsin cuts, for example, were passed alongside the continuation of an existing tuition freeze. But any savings that might bring will be negated by the damaging impact of the cuts.
According to Inside Higher Ed, this coming year UW-Eau Claire “will get 22.1 million of its $82.2 million operating budget from the state, compared to last year when the university received $29.8 million operating budget from the state.”
When Eau Claire Chancellor James Schmidt announced the cuts he said, “In many ways a cut of this size feels like a betrayal from Wisconsin…It feels like a death in the family.”
As a result, Eau Claire has cut 168 administrative positions—about 11 percent of the school’s staff. The equivalent of about 69 full-time instructional positions won’t return to campus in the fall.
The reduction in teaching staff is creating one major effect – class sizes are going to get bigger and, for many courses, there will be far fewer sections. On a campus of nearly 11,000 students class sizes already average 27 students. And we all know that more students and fewer teachers equals less personal attention, less learning, and more frustration.
Because it’s my senior year, the pressure is on to complete all my needed classes and these cuts are making the stress worse. You do the math — the same amount of students trying to get into fewer available classes doesn’t compute.
As a result, I’ve already determined that I’m going to have to extend my schooling for an additional semester (stretching my higher education into a fifth year) because I haven’t been able to fit in all my requirements. And another semester means more tuition (About $5,000 more), not to mention housing, etc. I’m lucky enough that my parents are helping me to an extent, but I also work around 30 hours a week every summer in a pizza joint. During the school year I juggle the same job with a full course load. (I’m not complaining, just explaining.)
The University of Wisconsin system has always championed itself as a great education for a low price. But some students wonder if that’s still the case. “It seems that the education a student receives through the UW system is going to be less effective, but as a heftier price,” says Jesse Friend, a junior at Eau Claire. “This should concern all students.”
In a blog on the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s website Chancellor Rebecca Blank wrote about how the staff has been affected by the cuts. “These changes are the latest in a series of accumulating events that have created an unhealthy and unwelcoming atmosphere around higher education in recent months. This university and the entire UW System has been subject to unprecedented scrutiny. The subjects that we study, how hard our faculty work, the inclusiveness of our governance model and most recently, our tenure protections, have come into question. All of this has understandably taken a toll on morale.”
21-year-old Jennifer Schaab, a nursing major at UW-Eau Claire, is the first in her family to attend college. She also works full time as a waitress. With fewer classes now available, she’s in the same boat with me, needing additional semesters to complete her course work. That also means more waiting tables to make the money to afford the extra semesters, and more financial aid.
She explains, “By the time I’m done with school, I’ll have acquired $30,000 in student loan debt.”
According to the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, the average U.S student who graduates from a university in 2015 is in debt around $24,301. Tell me that’s not a serious problem.
A decade ago total student loan debt in America was $260 billion; it’s now grown to $1.16 trillion dollars.
Even with student loans, according to the Center on Budget and Policy priorities, years of budget cuts are threatening the quality of higher education for students across the U.S. Funding remains well below pre-recession levels. After adjusting for inflation, the Center reported in May that “states cut funding deeply after the recession hit. The average state is spending $1,805, or 20 percent, less per student than it did in the 2007-08 school year. Per-student funding in Alabama, Arizona, Louisiana, Pennsylvania, and South Carolina is down by more than 35 percent since the start of the recession.” Wisconsin is one of the 13 states that further cut funding in 2015.
Another Example: the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. According to the Center on Budget and Policy priorities, the school has eliminated nearly 500 faculty positions and around 16,000 seats in all of the classes combined. Overall the state spends 20 percent less per student annually.
Louisiana’s public universities have also been majorly cut. Since 2008, the government has cut 673 million dollars; Another 300 million cut is expected this year. In the past seven years 800 faculty positions have been eliminated, 300 programs have been cut, and the state is spending 42 percent less per student annually.
But it’s Arizona that takes the lead when it comes to the biggest university cuts nationwide. The cost of state college tuition has gone up by $4,734 per student since 2008. According to the Arizona Republic, pre-recession, the university system was receiving $1 billion in state funding, but due to a $99 million budget cut the system receives less than $600 million annually—a 47 percent but.
Of course, there is some good news. Problem is you have to go to somewhere like Germany to find it. This European country recently announced that there would no longer be tuition required to attend their universities. Every citizen will now be able to attend college free of charge. Fantastic, right? Of course, the Germans can afford to do this because its citizens pay a whopping average of 60 percent in income tax, while Americans pay around 35 percent.
Regardless, the German plan probably wouldn’t ever fly in the U.S. But here’s an idea: how about increasing taxes on alcohol or tobacco or other non-essential items? This additional income for public education would have an impact, right? “Surely each of us values higher education for our young people more than we value cheap cigarettes,” says Chris Koster, Missouri’s Attorney General. He’s fighting to help lower tuition and create scholarships at state colleges. He told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch how Missouri could be raising roughly $300 million annually if the states raised taxes on tobacco by just 73 cents a pack. To smokers, I’m sure that’s outrageous and to them I say, “sorry,” but I’m with Koster.
We all know that without a college degree the odds are rarely in our favor, in terms of obtaining a well-paid position or starting a meaningful career. But with all these education cuts, it’s becoming harder and harder to make it happen. Diluting the quality of education at a time when a highly educated workforce is more necessary than ever to our nation’s economic future doesn’t bode well for us; some say we’re falling further and further behind other developed countries. Many of the 2016 presidential candidates have started to take notice.
Hillary Clinton recently announced her plan to make college more affordable. Universities that provide a “no loan” tuition will be eligible for federal funds for incentive. This means that public universities would lower tuition enough that students would no longer need to borrow money. Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, another Democratic Party candidate, has introduced a $70 billion annual plan that would put two-thirds of the higher education burden on the federal government. The money, he says, would come from taxing transactions made by Wall Street firms. In return, this would provide free tuition for students to public universities.
Marc Rubio, A Republican Party candidate, co-sponsored “The Right to Know before You Go Act.” He proposed this in front of Congress in 2013. This plan would have allowed students to know the true, realistic price of college, and how long it would take to go to school to earn each degree. He also recommended the growth of “Income Share,” a form of student aid allowing private investors to help pay tuition; in return they would take a percentage of the student’s future earnings. Both of these initiatives never made it through Congress, but Rubio knows what it’s like to have student debt himself and is trying to figure out a new way to approach it.
I still hate cold mornings. I especially hate them in January when I have to get up for an 8 a.m. lab and trudge through Wisconsin snow to get there. Yet these days, I know I’m lucky to even be enrolled in the class, lucky that I can even afford to enroll in it.
An ever-growing number of my peers, however, will be sleeping in this winter. And that, I’m afraid, isn’t lucky at all.
Emily Colosimo can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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