Op-ed Submission: The cost of universities hurts both students and teachers

Cody Burleson | Third-year Neuroscience Ph.D. Student

Higher education in the U.S. has become an ugly simulacrum of an educational system for most students and faculty.

This generation of undergraduate students gets stuck with historically high levels of debt, for the privilege of entering a workforce with historically stagnant wages. University faculty at all institutions—public & private, non & for-profit—are also experiencing historically high levels of precarity and low levels of pay, with most workers being non-tenure track faculty (such as adjuncts) and graduate student workers. While these trends are fodder for much posturing from politicians and non-profit foundations, however, it’s political pressure from organized students and faculty that has a chance to change things for the better.

Often, the choice for students is to take on massive debt—nearly $30,000 is now the average according to the non-profit Institute for College Access & Success—or not go to college. This was certainly the case for my family and friends; my wife and I now owe a nice car’s worth of student loan debt to the Department of Education. This is true even though we both worked part time during schools, and we received considerable financial aid such as Pell Grants. Even working near full time as a manager of a discount clothing store, my sister still has to take out loans for her college education. Most of the folks from back home in rural Tennessee didn’t go to college or tried to but dropped out due to financial problems. No doubt the massive inflation in college costs is directly tied to the extreme cuts to public higher education funding at the state and federal level; universities now depend on tuition for 44 percent of their funding, compared to only 20 percent 25 years ago (according to the State Higher Education Executive Officers Association). The cost has been shifted from the public at large to individual families, making it particularly difficult for poorer families to afford higher education.

Despite the tremendous cost for students, universities depend heavily on part time and low wage non-tenure faculty to teach classes and perform research; according to the Department of Education, ~50 percent of U.S. university faculty are part time and 70 percent are “contingent”, non-tenure track workers such as adjunct faculty, postdoctoral researchers and graduate students workers. Adjuncts make on average $20k-$25k annually with few benefits, often juggling classes between multiple campuses. Additionally, much teaching and research labor for the universities is performed by relatively low-wage postdocs and graduate student workers. However, the opposite has been seen in the administrations of U.S. universities with administrative positions increasing 60 percent over the last decade, according to the Department of Education, and with salaries easily breaking six and often seven figures.

What can we do? Undergraduate students, graduate student workers, postdocs and adjuncts need to organize coordinated efforts to see any change. Undergrads have power to affect image-sensitive college administrations via public demonstrations, and they make up a huge number of the voting public, giving them leverage over state and federal politicians. Organization of university workers provides a vital tool to negotiate the bread-and-butter concerns of the workers. Washington University adjuncts recently unionized with the Service Employee International Union, and interest is building among us graduate student workers to do the same. Beyond giving workers a voice in the negotiation of their pay and benefits, these efforts lend us leverage and organizational ability to advocate for broader policy changes within and without Wash. U. It is only through collective efforts that we can reshape U.S. higher education into a more democratic image for the benefit of us all.

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