23.9.09

TAKING STOCK.

Northern Illinois president John Peters recently delivered his tenth State of the University address. At the time of his hire, I had been referring to the university as one of the better-kept secrets in the state. (Yes, I gripe a lot, but there's a lot that's good that goes on here.)



We're probably not so well-kept a secret any more, in part thanks to a BCS run that on the one hand generated some interest in the university (and yes, I enjoyed it, and recently noted a rare road win against the Big Ten) but on the other hand might have skewed the interest to the party-school, beer-and-circus demographic; and in part after a difficult day in February in which the goodwill Greater Chicago and the State Line showed toward us might have continued in the True North campaign meeting its fundraising goals. Despite the difficult economy, the university met its enrollment targets, with 3,033 incoming freshmen and a total enrollment of 24,424. The Economics Department was downsized with a university of 18,500 students in mind a few years ago, which means I'm probably not done griping.

The speech notes other points of pride. The university is a member of the Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities, hence my frequent use of the phrase land-grants and mid-majors. There are four new doctoral programs, including physics and geography. With the Argonne National Laboratory and Fermilab close by, those programs make sense.

Some parts of the university's position are less cheery. The state's precarious finances may mean the end of the Monetary Assistance Program, a voucher for state residents that is good at any state-located college or university. In less parlous times, the state universities objected to this program as taking money away from the public universities. (The generalization to government K-12 schools objecting to vouchers is left to the reader as an exercise.) President Peters's tone has changed.
Since I’ve been using a 10-year time frame for the rest of this speech, allow me to invoke that device here. Nothing in my 10 years at NIU has made me angrier – or more alarmed – than this. Nearly a third of our current undergraduates face the very real possibility of being unable to return in the spring.
That's the party line, and the editorial board at the Northern Star has endorsed it. On the other hand, because the vouchers are good at Loyola or DePaul or Northwestern as well as at Northern Illinois or Illinois State or Clout-Corruptistana, some recipients might substitute toward Northern Illinois.

The speech suggests the end of the vouchers is part of a more generalized breach of the social contract.
Our biggest challenge today is the same one that greeted me upon my arrival in June of 2000; quite simply, it is the disinvestment of our state in higher education. When I came here, the state portion of our budget had plummeted to somewhere around 40 percent. Today it is less than 26 percent. There is a breach in the social contract that has for 150 years defined higher education as a public good. Today, as battles rage in state capitals across our country, higher education is cast as a private benefit instead of an investment we all make in our future.
That this passage comes toward the end of the speech, after a recitation of accomplishments including fundraising for a new building for the College of Business and some new athletic facilities, after a list of technology commercialization successes, after the creation of new agreements with community colleges in which holders of technical associates degrees are able to earn baccalaureate degrees in allied health and homeland security, suggests a loose definition of the expression "public good." The marginal spillover benefits of these functions are likely small.

The universities, including Northern Illinois, have broken the social contract themselves. At one time, the purpose of state aid to higher education was to identify poor but determined young people and aid their transition to a more rewarding existence, whether financially or intellectually. When just over half of those freshmen finish within six years, something's broken. The university's response: expanded diversity efforts. George Leef anticipates the outcome.
The truth is that we lure a large number of students into college who are academically weak and disengaged. Quite a few of them drop out, but quite a few manage to graduate—and then end up in rather mundane jobs that almost any high-school student could learn. Bureau of Labor Statistics data confirm that significant percentages of workers with college degrees are doing jobs that only call for on-the-job training.
They do, however, help the university service the debt on the arena and the parking deck while they're enrolled, which at least one Cold Spring Shops source suggests is the real reason for those enrollment targets in the mid-twenties.

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