…budget cuts caused enrollment in California community colleges to decline by over 400,000 students. That’s more than the total number of undergraduates enrolled in the entire California State University system.
One of the concerns I have about the way we think about higher education in this country is the question of whom it serves. Popular rhetoric suggests that colleges are there to serve students, and the more business-minded the college administration is, the more likely they are to frame college as a place that serves students as customers, and that emphasizes student outcomes (usually in terms of graduation rates and sometimes subsequent job placement). As teachers, we’re expected to be motivated to promote student success, and be rewarded by our interactions with students (since we certainly can’t expect to be rewarded financially in keeping with our workload and level of expertise).
Honestly, however, it’s not the individual students that we are serving. We are serving society. We are serving the future. The people who have to live in the world our students create have almost as much stake in educational outcomes as our students. They may not get the direct benefit of the improved employment opportunities, but the world that we all live in is shaped by the number of educated people, and the quality and intent of that education. What technologies will be developed, what policies will be made, what new businesses will be created… these things are largely the domain of people with post-secondary education.
So when we get a statistic like an enrollment drop of 400,000 in California, we have to be clear that we are narrowing the idea pool for the future. It’s not just that we’re serving 400,000 fewer “customers,” we are changing the capacity of our state to innovate. We are responding to current budget crises by reducing our intellectual resilience as a community.