Sam Newsome

Sam Newsome
"The potential for the saxophone is unlimited." - Steve Lacy

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Sunday, August 21, 2016

Playing the Credit Game: The Price of a College Education

As my summer break from teaching starts to come to an end (So long being immersed in music and enjoying the company of family!), I'm beginning to think more and more about my classes and class enrollment. Many who are not in the profession don't realize that securing enough students so that your classes will run is the Achilles hill of being a professor, even those with tenure. And this leads me to the discussion of the topic of selling class credits.

Selling class credits is the financial life support system at many private colleges and universities--particularly those devoid of large endowments. Without that cushion of the millionaire- and billionaire- alumni generosity, they are vulnerable to have to play what I call "the credit game."

First, let me define credit, for those of us who don’t work in academia and are not matriculated as a student. A credit is a measure of how much instruction a student receives during the semester. Typically, a credit equals an hour of instruction each week over the term or the semester. So if you are taking a three-credit course, which is the norm, you will be meeting anywhere between 2 ½ to 3 hours per week.  From a business perspective, it’s in the university’s best interest to have students take as many credits as possible during the school year. After all, business is business.

Now that we have an understanding of credits, let’s examine the credit game. The credit game is when your main focus becomes tilted more towards selling credits to students than maintaining a certain educational standard. And I'm not implying that a credits-sold initiative equals a lower educational standard, but it certainly creates opportunities for this kind if educational digression to unfold--which I will explain in just a moment.

Some institutions are somewhat protected from this and are able to remain focused more on academic excellence and graduate their students in a timely fashion. Ivy League schools like Harvard, Yale, and Princeton are abundant with endowments, so they don't typically have to view students solely as a source of income. This enables them to maintain a high level of academic standards. They are comparable to the musician who is independently wealthy and takes a gig because he's excited or inspired by the music, not because he has a phone bill to pay. Similarly, city and state schools can uphold their own level of academic excellence because they get support from public funds—anywhere from 80 to 90 percent in some instances. This is why they’re able to offer affordable tuition rates compared to most private institutions. So for them, seeing students as a means solely for paying for the school's infrastructure is not necessary. They're like the musician who gets to pick and choose his gigs because he or she has a low overhead and a modest trust fund. And FYI, Havard's endowment is roughly 36 billion. 

Private institutions without sizable endowments are not afforded this luxury. They have to generate their own income from credits sold.  Even though they are not owned by the state, they do, however, receive assistance in terms of tax exemptions. And some private universities even receive a per-student subsidy for every in-state student they enroll.  Even with this government assistance, they are still faced with an enormous challenge to keep their university financially afloat.

LIU Post, the sister campus to LIU Brooklyn has an endowment of $43 million. In practical terms, this is about $6,000 for each of it's $7,000 students. Princeton, on the other hand, which has an endowment of around 22 billion, has $2 million per each of its students. So you can see why some private universities have to take desperate means to stay afloat. I see them comparable to the musician who has a huge monthly overhead, so every gig is crucial--even the crappy ones. Picking and choosing is not an option. These schools tend to be more on the costly end of affordability, compared to their public owned counterparts. Their income primarily comes from student tuition. This is where colleges find themselves in compromising positions. Every student that they reject is potential money that won't go towards paying for the basic infrastructure of the university. And of course, in order to maximize their recruitment efforts, they have to loosen the reigns of academic excellence. At some institutions,  low performing students serve two financial purposes: (1) to provide scholarships for high performing students and; (2) to pay bills and teachers' salaries. It's a sad but definite truth. The institutions, on the other hand, are shielded from the accusation of any wrongdoing under the guise of providing educational opportunities for students who represent a broad spectrum of learning abilities. In other words, they give students who probably should not be in college a chance to strive for the American Dream, and sometimes they do realize it. There's always the possibility of defeating the odds. But in many cases, they end up going heavily into debt for a degree that may or may not have real worth. This, unfortunately, is a very harsh reality.

Having a college degree is comparable to having a brand new, top of the line instrument. Both of which are worthless if you can't support it with excellence. It is possible to graduate with a passing GPA and still be unemployable. In higher education the good student isn't always the one who produces good work, sometimes they’re just ones who are able to follow directions without causing the professor too much trouble.

And unfortunately, many students simply view a college degree as an accumulation of credits that they can cash in on the job market. Recently I was registering a student, a non-music major who was interested in taking one of the music appreciation classes I teach. When I began describing the class to him, he said, "Oh yeah, that's the class that costs $4,000." And I thought this is a sad moment in higher education when a class is viewed through the lens of money instead of the lens intellectual enlightenment. And these two disparate perspectives on classroom learning also determine the level of learning commitment. Love, passion, and genuine interest will always trump indifference and concerns of financial worthiness.

Colleges and universities play a role in students viewing classroom learning in this way by having such inflated tuition prices. If I bought a CD for $10, I would listen to it with little regard to what was paid for it. However, if that same CD costs $1,000, my association with the CD would be financial. It would no longer be a Charlie Parker or Miles Davis CD or whoever I'm listening to, but that damn $1,000 CD! Inflated prices for anything deprives us of intrinsic enjoyment. If a plate of pasta costs you $500 at a restaurant you'd probably do an appraisal of every noodle. It's human nature.

I stated earlier that a degree can be comparable to an instrument in that they both are deemed meritless without the active ingredient of excellence. I wouldn't be out of line in saying that a three million dollar Stradivarius violin in the hands of a beginner is nothing more than a piece of wood and strings. And the same holds true for a college degree. Without conjugating with the love of learning and excellence it is merely no more than a piece of paper signifying that you will be in debt for the next decade or two. As a music student, you can graduate with a 4.0 GPA and still have a horrible sound, bad rhythm, a limited knowledge of harmony, and be virtually unemployable. I've seen it happen. I've even graduated a few. Becoming a good musician is an intricately nuanced process. The college system of assessment does not work within the realm of this kind of nuance but numerical truisms. You can meet all of the mandatory proficiency requirements of your professors but that does not translate to artistry nor employable skill sets. Often times the things that make us great or even unique are immeasurable. How does one put what Dewey Redman, Thelonius Monk or Cecil Taylor do into the construct of a university rubric? In fact, music programs often do a disservice by even attempting to.

I don't want to bash music programs nor colleges and universities. They all serve a great and much-needed purposes. However,  I do feel students should become more aware of why they are there. And that the piece of paper at the end of the four years won't mean that you will get a job nor that you are job worthy. Students must learn to see their educational experience as more than four years of accumulating credits. It is important to value the experience of the educational environment, taking every advantage to learn from the professor as well as the other students. The college experience should be viewed as a practice run for real life. Professors are not just old people who are standing between you and an "A." Often times they are potential references and employers. As a student,  I viewed my professors as people who could potentially hire or refer me for gigs. Sometimes they did--another reason to always put your best effort forward. You never know where a personal connection could lead. You don't want to wait until you are booted out from the protective bosom of dormitory life to begin conducting yourself in a professional manner. By then, it's already too late.

Graduating from college is an amazing experience and accomplishment. One that I wish every person could experience--young and old. And if you do decide to take this journey to intellectual enlightenment, you must remember that some colleges and universities have to play the credit game, it's imperative for their financial survival. As students, though, you don't need to get entangled in that web of thought. Never lose sight of why you’re really there: to learn.