Dear Mr. President…

Dear President Obama:

I watched your State of the Union Address last night. It was a pretty good one. It could have been much shorter, and your spilled milk joke didn’t go over too well (despite Rep. Jason Chaffetz’s air-rimshot). But I do thank you for placing education, and higher education in particular, so prominently in the national spotlight during your speech.

It encouraged me to hear you call for more job-training programs at community colleges, extending the tuition tax credit and doubling Federal Work Study jobs. These are good programs that can help make college more affordable for students. I was also happy that you asked Congress to hold the line on increasing interest rates on student loans. And as someone who works for a research university, I was thrilled that you called on Congress to spare the ax when it comes to basic research funding.

“Innovation also demands basic research,” you said. “Today, the discoveries taking place in our federally financed labs and universities could lead to new treatments that kill cancer cells but leave healthy ones untouched. New lightweight vests for cops and soldiers that can stop any bullet. Don’t gut these investments in our budget. Don’t let other countries win the race for the future. Support the same kind of research and innovation that led to the computer chip and the Internet; to new American jobs and new American industries.”

Good stuff, that.

But before you got to that research bit, you issued a stern warning to public higher education. You put us “on notice” that the government would not continue to “subsidize skyrocketing tuition.”

You told us:

If you can’t stop tuition from going up, the funding you get from taxpayers will go down. Higher education can’t be a luxury, it is an economic imperative that every family should be able to afford.

Mr. President, we know that you want to increase the U.S. college graduation rate from 40 percent to 60 percent by 2020. We understand that you see higher education as a greater good to society.

But, Mr. President, I have to ask you: How much lower can public funding for this greater good to society go before public higher education becomes more or less privatized, and as a result, becomes exactly that “luxury” you oppose?

Let me give you an example to ponder.

Here in my state, Gov. Jay Nixon gave a similar speech to the Missouri legislature last week, and he sounded many of the same themes as you. He wants Missouri to be more competitive economically, and he wants Missourians to have affordable access to a college education. “In another challenging budget year,” Nixon said, “our top priorities in funding for higher education must continue to be high-quality academic programs and student scholarships.”

But he also said that “to balance our budget in a way that protects our scholarships and academic programs, I am calling on all our colleges and universities to continue to look for more ways to cut overhead and administrative costs and run smarter, more efficient operations.”

What he didn’t say in his speech, but was widely reported by the news media, was that he was presenting a budget that cuts public higher education in Missouri by 12.5 percent.

That would take us back to 1997 funding levels, Mr. President. 1997, when the state of the art of the Internet was the Mosaic browser, and the Pentium II was the new standard for computer processing speed.

Mr. President, we cannot afford as a nation to educate tomorrow’s students at 1997 levels. If we do, where are all of these Class of ’97 graduates going to work in tomorrow’s economy?

I’m not saying we in higher education can’t become more efficient. I think we can. A fellow higher ed blogger, Chas Grundy, also thinks higher education institutions can and should become more efficient.

But I think many colleges and universities are more efficient than you, Mr. Nixon or many other political leaders give us credit for.

Also, if you want cutting-edge research, you’re going to have to allow for some inefficiencies. Experimentation and innovation can sometimes be messy.

At the beginning of your speech, Mr. President, you talked about how you made the tough decision to bail out the U.S. automakers. And how, as a result of that tough, at times unpopular, decision, the U.S. auto industry has made a comeback in the global marketplace.

You say you want U.S. college graduation rates to be the best in the world. But it sounds like you want us to do it on the cheap.

I’m not asking for a bailout of public higher education, Mr. President. We as a nation can’t afford another bailout, even if it makes us No. 1 in whatever.

I’m just asking for support of a public good at a level that will ensure our nation’s students will graduate with the abilities, knowledge and skills they need to make this country great.

God bless you, Mr. President. And God bless the United States of America.


Andrew P. Careaga

Author: andrewcareaga

Higher ed PR and marketing guy. Communications director for Missouri University of Science and Technology (Missouri S&T) in Rolla, Missouri, USA. Slow runner, mediocre guitarist, lover of music and puns, and an avid St. Louis Cardinals fan. I blog and Tweet about #highered, #music, #gocards and #random stuff.

5 thoughts on “Dear Mr. President…”

  1. I was wondering if you or Dean Dad would pick up on this. I just posted an abbreviated version of this rant on an academic community I frequent.

    At our universities, we can’t spend ourselves into a deficit. There are two choices — raise tuition or cut programs. Both inputs affect graduation rates one way or another.

  2. Andrew, you’ve brought to this discussion the very same “common sense” that our President also called for in his speech. The way I see it, setting priorities is at the center of this issue, and the President seems to have conflicting ones. But with the setting of priorities comes trade offs. So, if the priorities are funding the academic core, fueling new research and providing access to an education to all who seek it, what happens to the salaries of those in the mega-sports programs? No easy answers, but thank you for bringing clarity to the discussion.

  3. Andrew,

    Thank you for your post regarding the State of the Union address. I am a graduate student in Missouri and completely agree with your questions regarding how we are able to make universities more efficient. I also agree we should be aiming for ways to make all educational institutions more efficient with funding being spent, but some corners are unable to be cut. This brings me to the ethicality of his proposal. Karl Wallace developed four moralities in assessing the ethicality of a communication message. “Respect or belief in the dignity and worth of the individual, fairness or belief in equal opportunity, freedom coupled with responsible exercise of freedom, and the belief in each person’s ability to understand the nature of democracy,” (Ethics in Human Communication). I believe President Obama was attempting to achieve all four moralities within most of the State of the Union address. These changes within the educational realm sound great from the outside perspective, but what else is going to have to give in order to achieve this highly efficient educational system?
    Thank you for your thoughts regarding these important educational issues.

    Danielle McCallum
    Communication Graduate Student
    Drury University

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