Weighing the Costs

Sunday, July 24, 2011 / 12:51 PM

The New York Times' Education section is currently focusing on the question of whether life beyond a bachelor's degree is beneficial or not. In a recent article by Laura Pappano, "The Master's as the New Bachelor's," the conclusion is that it isn't. Nowadays, it would seem that having a master's is the norm and the article notes that the number of master's awarded since 1980 have doubled.

A sociology class I took back in 2008 made note of this as well, though the discussions at the time were just musings: decades ago, it was enough to just graduate from high school; then it was just enough to have a bachelor's degree; soon, we'll all have to have more in order to be employable at even the lowest level. "In 20 years, you'll need a Ph.D. to be a janitor," says Richard K. Vedder, professor of economics at Ohio University, in Pappano's article.

There are two things about this that frustrates me the most: 1) the devaluing of high school (and therefore junior high/elementary school) education, and 2) the cost of obtaining a master's.

Issues in education are often overlooked, yet I think it's one of the most rampant problems in this country. We lose sight of the bigger picture, which is if we don't education our children, what kind of future are we hoping for? "Back when we valued a high school diploma, the quality of a high school education mattered," Cort pointed out last night at dinner. It's true, and is also what is happening to undergraduate education as well, I believe. What we seem to forget though is that it is these younger generations that will be running this country someday.

Which ties into my second point: soon, it will only be the wealthy who are able to obtain any sort of decent education. Schools are becoming factories, it seems. When I tutored at Orange High, I witnessed this firsthand: there are not enough teachers who actively care about their students. In Mr. Lake's classroom, it felt like he was just trying to move them along at the bare minimum. It didn't matter that some of these kids couldn't read and it wasn't as if there was any accountability. "Most of these kids won't have done the reading yet," Tim used to always say to us during our prep sessions. And it was true, because nobody held them accountable for their work.

Education is something politicians talk about valuing in this country, yet the funding does not exist for it anymore. Look at California, whose "three-tiered system of public universities" was once hailed as the crown jewel of the state--a recent study at CSU Sacramento laid out the hard facts: "The California that many like to think of as a leader in higher education is average at best and trending in the wrong direction. This troublesome performance is not for lack of commitment and effort by faculty and staff at California's colleges and universities. Rather, it reflects lack of coordinated attention by the state's policy leadership...the absence of vision and of proactive policy leadership can reduce investment in, and returns from, higher education and diminish prospects for an entire state." The study concludes, "California must, and can, do better."

Though in terms of the UC and CSU fee increases in the past month (which I'm inclined to comment on because of my own research), I think it's the fault of both the state and the Regents. While it's appalling that Governor Brown has cut, and is continuing to cut, so much from the funding for higher education, one of the main reasons must be the Regents' own poor decisions as well. I don't believe that the Regents have ever truly sought an alternative source of funding aside from raising fees. Almost immediately after the governor announced additional cuts, fees for the fall were raised by an additional 9.6% at UCs and an additional 12% at CSUs. These increases come just weeks away from the beginning of a new semester for CSUs. How is that fair?

"Prioritize my education" - a UCI protest, Nov. 24, 2009
I can see a rationale to cutting funding on the state's part. Lieutenant Governor Newsom opposed the fee increase at the last Regents meeting in which the 9.6% increase was approved. Maldonado did the same in his position last November when the initial 8% increase for this coming fall was approved. To me, this looks like a challenge from Sacramento as the turn the pressure around on the Regents, who have tried to redirect the pressure they've received from students. So now it's a stalemate: Sacramento is saying, "Use your money better. Fund what you're supposed to be funding, or find an alternative income because we're not going to take your frivolous spending (exorbitant increases in an attempt to keep top researchers at certain UCs; constant construction to expand due to over-enrollment)," while the Regents are saying, "Give us more money. Fulfill your promise to the students." I see both points and perspectives and I think the real purpose of the UC system is being forgotten about in all of this: to educate the students of California. By turning the focus on out-of-state and international students for the funding (and don't try to disguise this as a diversity issue, Regents, we know the fees are what is appealing to you) and by giving financial aid to non-citizens (sorry, but years of reporting on undocumented students have not changed my mind on this issue), we begin to ignore the mission that the UC system was founded on.

The CSUS study says that the Master Plan needs to be reclaimed, but I think we're far past trying to fix what's been broken since Reagan took office as governor of California. (Note: Jerry Brown's first run as governor came after Reagan, so he's used to having to clean up messes.) The Master Plan needs to be entirely rewritten if we want to make a realistic game plan for the future of education in this state. Unfortunately, I don't see that happening anytime soon.

It's really up to the individual to decide if a master's or Ph.D. is worth the cost. It seems it's a necessity, though there are jobs out there for those who choose not to go that route. That requires a huge effort on the individual's part early on though. I know that if I had not worked as insanely as I did at all of those jobs during my undergraduate years, I would be embarking on that master's path because I don't know where else I would go. It's regrettable on some levels because all I seemed to do was work in college and it exhausted me, but that's the cost I chose to pay.

Education will never be affordable, and that's the sad future we're looking at.

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