Soapbox

For students, ‘skin in the game’ more like pound of flesh

Demonstrators are removed by CSU police officers from a November 2011 trustees meeting on a tuition hike.
Demonstrators are removed by CSU police officers from a November 2011 trustees meeting on a tuition hike. Associated Press file

Tuition dollars have overtaken state funding in supporting public higher education in California, as is true throughout the country. Students and their families are paying more than ever for the college degrees that previous generations obtained for next to nothing.

The “public good” – often mentioned as the reason that public higher education even exists – sounds like empty rhetoric these days.

Meanwhile, banks prosper because those who have been told they must invest more in their education need to borrow more. “Skin in the game,” that vile metaphor, turns out not to describe a stake in one’s own future so much as lifelong debt. “Skin in the game” starts looking more like a pound of flesh.

But this is the era when business analogies prevail in academia, as do business values: accountability, productivity, efficiency. “Skin in the game” comes up regularly, whether in task force reports or in formal meetings of board members and administrators.

In particular, a task force at California State University is circulating a draft report on the financial sustainability of the system, a report that not only refers to “skin in the game” for students, but also will propose the ways a great public institution needs to seek more private money – through partnering with business, or risking an institution’s future in the marketplace through taking on debt, or planning for regular tuition increases tied to the rate of inflation.

How will California legislators respond to a new financial model that backs away from the state’s Master Plan promise of an affordable, quality higher education?

One has to assume, with a sigh of relief. No more will politicians have to hear the pleas for adequate funding during budget season. Indeed, legislators and the governor have managed recently to look like heroes when they agreed to more funding for CSU, even though funding remains far below what it was a decade ago. Those pesky student, staff and faculty lobbyists could go away, if CSU could launch a plan to sustain itself rather than apply more pressure for a bigger share of the so-called shrinking pie of government revenue.

Affording a college degree in California could increasingly become a private matter – whether it means a family’s long-term financial planning or a campus partnering with local businesses. Another goal is to rely more on philanthropy, though it is predicated on the waxing and waning of private fortunes.

Do you have kids approaching college age? This will matter to you. For the rest of the state’s citizens – including those who once benefited from what had been a model of a nearly free public higher education and have gone on to rise in the ranks of the middle class – you can indulge in a twinge of guilt. But times being what they are, it’s impossible to feel generous toward other people’s children, isn’t it?

And no need to worry: No one will touch the third rail of Proposition 13, that train wreck that saved your own skin a long time ago.

Susan Gubernat is a professor of English at California State University, East Bay, and a member of the CSU Academic Senate.

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