March 2001 aaUPBEAT
Trends: Financial Assistance & Grad Student Unions
Not surprisingly, higher education's corporatization has resulted in a shifting of higher education's values at a number of levels. The emphasis on reducing costs, building impressive portfolios, implementing big-business efficiency models, and redefining students more as consumers than as learners are all part of a trend toward higher education's overhaul. This trend is all the more significant if we remember that higher education has always been a portent of evolving social-economic structures.
For instance, as Altbach, Berdahl and Gumport indicate in their book Higher Education in the 21st Century (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1998), what people think of today as the higher education system has a long history, initially having been established in 13th century France as a professor-centered institution which "enshrined autonomy as an important part of the academic ethos."
As this model spread throughout Europe, it was modified in many ways over the centuries, and yet these changes entailed not so much a departure from the original model as a constant updating of it to fit new conditions. One of those new conditions was the rise of western capitalism and the consequent globalization of the western educational vision. As European nations, empowered by industrialization, made the transfer of their educational models to the colonies a part of their imperial efforts, the foundation was laid for what today has become a reality: one basic academic model worldwide. This basic model, although always centered at least theoretically on the professor's intellectual independence, often served the interests of economic forces that in fact undermined that independence. The British, as an example, established an educational system in India that promoted the virtues of learning, but within the context of educating Indians to serve British interests by becoming civil servants in the vast colonial bureaucracy. Still, the enlightenment ideal of the value of autonomous thought was a real if less than perfect one that gained increasing currency throughout the world during the 18th and 19th centuries.
Today, of course, the world is much different. Yet still tension exists between, on the one hand, higher education as a fosterer of independent thought and, on the other, higher education as a manufacturer of "properly trained" graduates meant to serve the interests of the powers that be.
This tension can be detected in almost every aspect of higher education today. We will write about two of those aspects below: trends in financial aid and graduate student unionization.
Following WWII, the GI Bill (Servicemen's Readjustment Act of 1944) played a dramatic role in expanding access to higher education. Any veteran who met the admissions requirements at the college or university of his/her choice was eligible for GI Bill funding. No other evaluation criteria were used. This fueled the biggest explosion of higher education participation in the country's history, sending more low-income and working-class whites and racial/ethnic minorities into the ranks of higher education than ever before. In the seven year period following the war, approximately 2.5 million veterans flooded the nation's campuses. Another 5.5 million took advantage of a variety of high school and vocational training programs. This assemblage of post-WWII veterans went on to play a major role in performing the jobs necessary for America's rise to superpower status during the subsequent years. Particularly in terms of students' economic backgrounds, the government's throwing-open of higher education's doors transformed the so-called educated class into a far more diverse group than previously.
This GI Bill-instigated pattern continued in the wake of both the Korean war and the Vietnam conflict. By the time of the Vietnam era, not only was the higher education student population growing more racially as well as economically diverse, students and faculty were also identifying structural problems intrinsic to higher education's institutions, and demanding that those problems be rectified. As a result of such pressure, particularly as it applied to further expanding higher education's base of students, affirmative action and other reform measures were implemented in order to offset historical racial and gender imbalances. Student aid programs for neutralizing the cost prohibitions that faced low-income students were a prime method for realizing this goal. Need-based criteria were the order of the day. Among other things, financial aid programs became engines for diversifying student populations as part of an ongoing effort to widen the recruitment net so that both universities and the nation could be invigorated by talented people attracted from the widest spectrum of places.
The heyday of this trend - i.e., of going to a larger rather than a smaller talent pool in order to seek out tomorrow's higher education students - ended almost two decades ago and this decline, at the 21st century's outset, has become an indicator of a vision shift among higher education's administrators. As corporate America seeks ways to improve profit ratios by employing new technology, downsizing workforces and adding work to the remaining jobs, higher education has been pressured to reduce its pool of potential students and cater to the needs of the middle class. The results of this pressure are evidenced in, among other areas, a transformation in financial aid thinking.
As Andrew P. Roth, author of Saving for College and the Tax Code, recently pointed out in a Chronicle of Higher Educational article, an analysis of state laws and higher education student-assistance funding priorities shows a trend away from the view that financial aid should provide assistance to the needy and toward the notion that families themselves are responsible for funding students' education. One of the prime indicators of this shift is the growing emphasis on college-savings programs, which offer middle-class families with sufficient assets the opportunity to save money for their children's education. For instance, through use of a college-savings trust, a family can buy into a state-supported mutual funds program while receiving special tax exemptions. Although theoretically such options are open to all parents, it is clear that in reality only those families that are relatively stable economically can take advantage of them
Such changes indicate that we have entered into a new higher education era. According to Roth, "Research demonstrates that the growth of college-savings plans is generating fundamental shifts in financial-aid policy: away from access and equity for lower-income students and toward middle-class affordability, away from need-based assistance and toward tax-based assistance, and away from government support and toward greater parental responsibility for tuition."
Our state has its own version of the kind of legislation Roth analyzes. The Delaware College Investment Plan offers interested parties an opportunity "to purchase units in a portfolio of stock, bond and money market mutual funds." Earnings derived from this plan possess a tax-deferred status, meaning that neither state nor federal taxes are paid on the earnings until the funds are used to pay a student's education costs: tuition, room and board, supplies, etc. At that time, the money is taxed as the beneficiary's income, thereby reducing the tax rate since students typically have lower incomes than parents.
Such plans, which are on the rise and which represent an ever larger percent of the financial aid available, signal a substantive shift in assistance policy. According to Roth, a major "cause for concern... is that such plans benefit middle-class families rather than provide aid to those with the greatest need."
In Delaware the consequences of such an approach are obvious. As we have shown previously in a number of newsletter articles, UD has been far from successful in broadening its student base, both economically and in terms of race, over the last two decades. Such college-savings plans will not help this situation.
But this issue is important far beyond our small state. The question of how broad a talent pool higher education uses in order to prepare the nation for the future will say a lot about the quality of that future. During the GI Bill's heyday in the post-WWII period, the country strengthened itself by incorporating millions of people into the higher education system who probably wouldn't have received degrees otherwise.
As the corporatization of higher education continues, access to higher education for many people is being diminished, not enhanced.
This is not a good sign
Grad Student Unionization Drives
University administrators opposed to the unionization of teaching assistants often claim that such graduate student attempts to win collective bargaining rights threaten the "special" way in which higher education operates. Such administrators claim that the introduction of an industrial model for solving administration-T.A. problems can only hurt the cooperative spirit which traditionally has characterized campus life. Many administrators, like New York University dean Catherine R. Stimpson, don't even acknowledge that teaching assistants are "workers" in any meaningful sense. Instead, they insist that efforts to win graduate students collective bargaining rights, if successful, will result in the imposition of an "alien model on the academic life of teaching, learning, and research."
In the unionization battle in her own university, Dean Stimpson's view did not prevail. In spite of her opposition, an April 2000 National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) decision found in favor of NYU graduate students' right to organize. When, by early this year, NYU still had failed to recognize the graduate student union, which was organized under the auspices of the UAW, the NLRB ordered the administration to bargain with the union. Although NYU administrators, heeding the advice of administrators at other large private universities, considered fighting the NLRB order, possibly all the way to the Supreme Court, they eventually retreated and on March 1st announced their willingness to negotiate with the graduate students. NYU is the first private university to officially recognize a graduate-employee union. The union's initial objectives include winning increased stipends, workload agreements, health benefits and a grievance procedure.
Another university that may be moving in a similar direction is Temple University.
Although Mary Stricker is preparing for her dissertation defense next month in Temple University's sociology department, she is not so busy that she won't talk about the graduate student unionization drive at Temple. Ms. Stricker, one of the founders of the Temple University Graduate Student Association (TUGSA), the organization that has led the drive for unionization, has been a teaching assistant at Temple for five years. She laughs at the idea that graduate student unionization efforts introduce a type of artificial industrial relations into higher education. She believes that, if anything, the corporatization trend within higher education has forced graduate students as well as all other higher education employees to realize that unless they fight back, they are not likely to be treated fairly by their employers.
In keeping with this view, Ms. Stricker cites Temple administration efforts to increase productivity, exploit graduate students, reduce assistance to low-income applicants, and insulate the campus from the North Philly community of which it is theoretically a part as examples of what she calls the school's "bottom line corporate philosophy." According to Ms. Stricker, this corporatization trend at Temple "is a move to maintain the status quo by reproducing economic and racial privilege."
Ms. Stricker, thirty-three years old and the proud mother of a two-year-old daughter, Ruby, is adamant that graduate students, as well as permanent faculty members, can no longer afford to view themselves as separated by some sort of academic mote from the world around them. The increasing corporatization of academic life has destroyed that option forever, she believes.
It isn't only doctoral students like Ms. Stricker who promote such insights. Kate Bronfenbrenner, director of labor education research at Cornell University, and Tom Juravich, the holder of an equivalent position at the University of Massachusetts, presented similar views in an article they co-authored in the January 19 issue of The Chronicle of Higher Education.
In the article, the authors suggested that higher education was a hotbed of interlinked forces and that faculty must be aware of how these forces are operating. "The commercialization of higher education," they argued, "has irrevocably changed the nature of labor relations on campuses. The more the business of higher education institutions seems to be business, the more graduate students have begun acting like typical employees."
The authors also maintain that university administration attempts to thwart graduate-student organizing have nothing to do with a belief in maintaining a friendly academic atmosphere, but rather have to do with an effort to expand university portfolios and trusts by limiting employee salaries. "Indeed," they say, "the attempts by private-university officials to thwart graduate student unionization echo their aggressive opposition to organizing among clerical, service, and maintenance staff during the last two decades."
Whether we like it or not, university faculty are impacted by the same trends that impact other university employees. Consequently, it behooves us to study their responses to problematic situations and to work in alliance with them whenever possible.
Non-Tenure Track Faculty Meeting
The meeting's purpose is to give non-tenure track faculty an opportunity to describe special problems they face as a group and to advise AAUP leaders on ways the union can assist them.
AAUP Membership Meeting
The AAUP plans to hold a general membership meeting once per semester. At the spring semester's meeting, members are invited to discuss current issues and concerns, including next school year's collective bargaining priorities.