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Business Casual: College Tries and Trials

 

The year of my graduation, the introductory quote for the University of Georgia yearbook was from Bob Dylan: “The one thing I learned in college is that lots of people go to college.”

I’m not sure if it was intended to be ironic, irreverent or just a little something to raise the eyebrows on a few authority figures, but it was true then – the part about a lot of people going to college – and, fortunately, it still is.

And that’s how it should remain, whether the college is a two-year school, a four-year school, a major research university or a technical college: a broad array of options for a broad array of students.

Georgia has a strong system of post-secondary education – 35 public colleges and universities and 25 technical schools, supplemented by some distinguished private institutions.

All the public schools have felt the effects of budget cuts – more than $400 million has been slashed from their budgets in recent years. Not so long ago, the state provided 75 percent of public colleges’ budgets; now it’s about 55 percent. The balance comes from tuition and fees.

No doubt there are more cuts coming and more changes, and I don’t envy those who have to make them. But it is crucial that higher education keep moving forward, not backwards.

A great deal of attention is being directed at college costs, and rightly so. Gov. Nathan Deal has appointed a commission to study the way the state funds higher education and whether the emphasis should be on graduation rates rather than enrollment. Legislative committees are focused on ways to trim the budgets, and a Board of Regents committee is looking at the possibility of consolidating some of the public colleges.

Chancellor Hank Huckaby has expressed optimism that some of the funding cuts may be restored for the next academic year, but there is no escaping the demands and restrictions of a persistently tough economy.

For my parents’ generation, the GI Bill, which enabled thousands of returning World War II servicemen to enroll in college, was a life-changer. It established the idea of a college education as a goal within reach of ordinary people, not just the privileged. It helped change the face of the workforce and spurred the post-war economy. It enabled the Greatest Gener-ation to raise a subsequent generation that saw college as a necessity, not a luxury.

It is more of a necessity now than it ever was. At a time when the need for jobs, jobs and more jobs is on everyone’s mind, it’s worth remembering that an educated workforce is the best magnet for job producers.

Cuts and changes cannot have the effect of discouraging students who want an education. And lawmakers and others should resist the temptation to meddle unnecessarily in academic curriculum and content.

Sure, college is the place to prepare for a future work life, but it’s a lot more. It’s the place to get an education, which is far more than simply mastering sets of facts.

It should provide an opportunity for students to discover their capacity for using those facts to propel their own thinking, to stretch their minds and to entertain new ideas, to push themselves and discover strengths they may not have been aware of.

The tricky business of determining what gets taught where and by whom is a part of safeguarding a strong system of higher education. There is a reason the state university system is governed by a Board of Regents. Committees can make recommendations and the legislature can set a budget, but the way that budget is used should be left in the hands of the educators.

The last thing Georgia’s higher education system needs is a bunch of micromanagers looking over academics’ shoulders saying, “Why do you have so many history courses?” or “Do you really need a course in ethics?” or “What exactly are you teaching in freshman biology?”

The answer to the current financial crisis is not to keep citizens away from education. It’s more than just a matter of crunching numbers.

The effort to make Georgia’s system work during hard times requires an understanding of the role of education and a solemn commitment not to shortchange the Georgians who are depending on the system.

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