Higher Education Budget Cuts And the Ground Crew

Higher Education Budget Cuts And the Ground Crew
By Julianne Malveaux

The National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education released a report last month, “College Affordability in Jeopardy,” that showed public colleges “continue to become less affordable for students and families.” According to the independent, nonpartisan and nonprofit center, 16 states increased tuition and fees by more than 10 percent in fiscal year 2003. Every single state increased tuition and mandatory fees, and in some states the increases were startling.

Massachusetts leads the pack with an increase of 24 percent. Missouri, Iowa and Texas follow at 20 percent. North Carolina raised tuition and fees by 19 percent. While New York had the smallest increase at 2 percent, Gov. George Pataki has proposed increasing tuition by 35 percent or more at the State University of New York and the City University of New York. While tuitions have been rising, state support for public education has been falling. Just 14 states have increased their contribution to student financial aid, and many states have cut their appropriations to higher education.

The result is that fewer students can afford college, more are shouldering debt, and in some cases, enrollment will decline, leading to cuts in faculty and pay. In California, for example, the state appropriation for community colleges will fall by $530 million, which could cause an enrollment decline of 200,000 students.

The impact felt by higher education budget cuts are not new information for those who work in public colleges and universities. Indeed, many find their daily decisions shaped by the harsh reality of budget cuts. With academic departments, student service units and community service vying for a diminishing pool of funds, too many campus administrators are pressed to juggle a set of priorities and can never please all of their constituencies. Those who are already at the periphery often take the brunt of budget balancing. Schemes to furlough employees for a couple of weeks, for example, may be a mere inconvenience for faculty, but a major problem for staff who, at low pay, can hardly afford to spend two weeks out of work. But in the name of creative thinking, schemes like these routinely surface and are sometimes implemented in the name of sharing the pain.

Even as budgets are cut, some campuses make their priorities clear by spending big bucks on some faculty members and administrators, while neglecting catering staff. They bend over backward for campus “stars,” forgetting that somebody has to take star garbage from the office to the trash facility. This reminds me of a story that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. recounted about a flight he took in the early 1960s. According to King, the plane was delayed and a ground crew furiously worked to fix whatever was wrong. The passengers, comfortably seated, were served drinks and snacks as the workers scurried to fix the problem. After a time, the pilot announced that the problem had been solved and the passengers burst into applause. King wrote that while the resolution of a problem deserved applause, those on the plane ought to “remember the ground crew.”

In other words, it’s easy to applaud the announcement of a pilot, to look to those in leadership to solve problems. It’s more difficult to view the work of those invisible, voiceless, faceless, and sometimes nameless, people who make an institution work, but whose work goes unrecognized. People who go an extra mile to make sure a needy student gets financial aid, a stranded student gets a housing assignment, a hungry student gets an extra helping of food, or a filthy dormitory gets a diligent cleaning.

The ground crew are as important to the operating of a university as faculty are, but too often the ground crew, the staff, are the ones who get the short end of the stick. They shoulder a greater workload, with fewer resources. They sometimes have the power to make discretionary decisions about ways to distribute scarce resources, but often their hands are tied by university policies that mandate their responses to scarcity.

Staff members are as sanguine as anybody else about the challenges of budget cuts. Sometimes, they are willing to shoulder extra burdens, but simply want a place at the table, a voice about matters of resource allocation. Too often, campus leadership is unwilling to offer even a voice. As I write this, graduate students at Yale are on the verge of striking because their union has not been recognized. Press reports say the union wants higher stipends, better working conditions and a mechanism through which to air grievances. I’m willing to bet that the issue of grievances is as important as the pecuniary issues on the table.

According to the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education, higher education enrollments are projected to rise even as state economic downturns are expected to continue. Increasing numbers of the students expected to enroll in colleges are concentrated in states where the child poverty rate is high, and where family resources are limited. But students who come to campuses now will find higher fees, fewer services, and scant attention directed toward their challenges. With higher education reauthorization imminent, we must focus on issues of accessibility and affordability. But we also must focus on those who grease the wheels of the campus experience. In the words of Dr. King, we can’t forget the university’s “ground crew.”



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