Stimulating Higher Ed

cross-posted from

Take students out of the workforce and create real jobs for educators.

This week, lawmakers will meet to forge a compromise between the House and Senate versions of the stimulus bill. The likely consequence will be something similar to the Senate version, which targeted education funds for aggressive reductions — chopping an average almost $1-billion per state in funds that would largely have gone to help meet payroll for teachers.

In the absence of the state aid, hundreds of thousands of education jobs could be lost.

Boy, is that going in the wrong direction. As I’ve been grumpily pointing out since before the election (in company with the likes of Paul Krugman), we aren’t in New Deal territory yet. Far, far from it: As Krugman emphasizes, the New Deal itself was hardly enough of a commitment to public works to do the trick.

The correct historical parallel for Obama’s current stimulus efforts remains to be seen. It could easily be Hoover, who tried to be all bipartisan and moderate and compromising in his very insufficient stimulus efforts. And as a recent Chronicle contributor notes, even FDR, who campaigned against Hoover’s deficit spending and finance-industry bailouts, didn’t begin to accomplish much of anything until late in his first term, as growing militance from below demanded a much larger vision.

What is actually needed?

If things get worse, as seems likely, and if — as seems possible — education labor gets its act together, what is actually needed will become clear: full employment for educators and restrictions on student labor.

As anyone who’s attended a faculty meeting in the past two decades will have observed: higher education is a lead “innovator” of the lousy forms of employment that have gutted the economy — permatemping of the faculty, outsourcing the staff, and myriad ways of extracting un- and under-compensated labor from students: internships, assistantships, financial aid, partnerships with local employers, service learning, etc., etc., etc. Thanks to quality management, it’s Nickel and Dimed everywhere you look — but especially on campus.

On campus and throughout the economy, un- and under-compensated student labor has been aggressively substituted for permanent waged positions with benefits. That’s millions of real jobs, cut into pieces and parceled out as low-wage positions for students, many of whom take on between two and five “part-time” positions annually in order not to get whacked upside the head with debt.

Eighty percent of college students work an average of 30 hours a week, triple the figure most studies say is appropriate for optimal learning. This inappropriate workload bears directly on absurdly low persistence and graduation rates.

It also bears on the immiseration of the American workforce, on campus and off.

Graduate students can’t get jobs as faculty after studying for a dozen years—because all of the positions they have “prepared” for are being filled by other students, or former students working on a part-time basis.

Similarly, undergraduates are now doing journalism as service learning — replacing paid positions for staff reporters — and many will find that the jobs they want upon graduation have been converted to “internship opportunities.”

Stabilize the faculty now!

There are several hundred thousand educators working part time or contingently filling permanent staffing needs who would prefer to work full time and securely. Most of them are employed at a discount, and many of them do not have the terminal degrees in their fields. There is high turnover among these educators, because the pay is generally poor, status is low, and there is no rational path for recognition or promotion, no reward for better work, etc.

The tenure system is certainly imperfect. However, the lousily credentialed, low-oversight, haphazard system of casual employment that managers have substituted for it is a sick joke. It will be the end of the world’s envy of American higher ed when the truth of it is appreciated. The majority permatemping of the faculty is a cancer on our last brag on the world stage.

Enormous resources are wasted in constantly hiring, re-hiring, training, evaluating, and supervising this quickly churning labor pool. Much of the ballooning corps of administrators exist to service this wasteful arrangement.

Now is the time for an FDR type to step forward and say, “We’ve screwed up. One reason we have community colleges with single-digit graduation rates and major metropolitan universities who can’t graduate 30 percent of their first-year students six years later is because we have been trying to teach them with a drive-by faculty.”

It might cost a few tens of billions, but federal aid could easily be dispensed with the aim of creating good full-time jobs out of the part-time work of higher education. In return, part-timers without the terminal degree could be financially encouraged to complete doctorates (yup, creating a market for more graduate education), creating a better-prepared, more up-to-date, stable, available, and motivated faculty.

Hundreds of thousands of jobs could be created — practically overnight.

Save our students while creating millions of jobs!

Tuition at public institutions should be made free, or at least nominal, and students who meet reasonable progress toward degrees should receive a living stipend, with strict limits on the number of hours worked — no more than ten hours per week — closely tied to future goals.

The tuition would cost several tens of billions, but less than $100-billion certainly, and the stipend could be another couple hundred billion.

What would we gain for that? Well, lots more students would be both educated and graduated. That’s a good thing.

And millions of them would be withdrawn from the low-wage labor market created by law and policy over the past several decades — Clinton helped just as much as Reagan; read Nickel and Dimed if you’re foolish enough to be nostaligic for a Clinton-style “good economy.”

That would create the need for millions of nonstudent workers, in positions that we could help re-imagine as quality jobs, not piecework.

There might have to be some assistance to the employers who have grown structurally reliant on youth labor, and regulation of the positions created, but it could be done. (Perhaps something to occupy the time of administrators displaced from their positions supporting permatemped faculty?)

Call it another trillion if you must — none of it for more building on college campuses: Administrations have been gutting the faculty to build business centers, chapels, and stadiums for decades.

Millions of jobs, fast and cheap
Anyone who wants Obama to be the next FDR will have to recognize that higher ed has been an engine of so much that’s wrong with the “new economy,” especially the low-wage nightmare of students and teachers.

Let’s stabilize the crumbling faculty infrastructure and give college students something like the GI Bill. That’s a good three, four million jobs right there. Cheaper than any of the goofy spending we’ve already done.

That would be the real deal.

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