Anytime I see the phrase ‘A War on…’ I typically move right on past it as it tends to be some blown up version of political rhetoric and, in full transparency, I am exhausted by current events. Not a square to spare, I say. But ‘the war on higher ed’…I’ve thought about it and thought about it. I think it’s legit. I think there is a fairly significant yet intrinsicaly passive-aggressive attack on education in our country, with higher education at its apex. So everyone knows, I came from the corporate realm so it’s not as if I’m an education lifer blinded by or super-uppity from an eternally long immersion in the ‘education industry’.
“OK I’ll play,” you say. You’re still reading so…
I see unemployment percentages bandied about. I see job growth being one of the most watched stats in our country. I see a focus on keeping manufacturing plants on US soil. I see rah-rahs and success measured by the numbers. Then I see shrinking budgets for education. Which in turn creates an increase in cost for our students. Which empowers privately funded student loan programs to identify this student market, offering veritable children access to funds that exceed need sometimes by 500%. I mean, it’s the American way to be opportunistic, right? This leads to a fearful populace, terrified by promises of insurmountable debt and doubt surrounding the value of a higher education. And that’s just the general public. Imagine how these fears compound for first generation college prospects and their parents. No way no how.
I was fortunate enough to have a conversation with one of our researchers in agriculture a few weeks ago and it was one of those situations that has me reeling a bit because I can’t quite figure out what to do with the volume of information and ideas that I walked away with. As a less-than-one-hour interaction rarely if ever has me stymied, I’m just dipping my toe in the how-to-process pool on this one.
I think about a lot of things.
I’m originally from Louisiana but my entire family if from Arkansas – from Bentonville to Fordyce. As a youngster, I was the bored-to-pieces only child on family trips, wearing down a path between New Orleans and Bentonville or Fordyce to see grandparents. I remember the Arkansas Delta towns we skirted around – Lake Village, Eudora, Monticello. They were my favorite. The roadside cafes, the gas stations filled with candy, the miles of crops and at certain times of the year the canals would be lined with lit Christmas trees. I loved crossing into Arkansas.
I drove that same route a few years ago, heading to Destin. Many of the towns and in-between towns. Vacant. Like ghost towns.
I think about our folks in the Arkansas Delta region. I hear story after story about families that have worked in factories or on farms and it’s been generational. It’s a given that a son or daughter might very well work on the same line as his/her great-grandfather did. These are lifers. And this is work that has real value and needs to get done. But suddenly, farms and factories need more.
Using the phrase ‘let’s do things the way we’ve always done them’ is typically followed by a big ‘NOT!’ these days. Whether or not that’s a good thing I don’t know but it simply is what it is. There is an elevated business angle needed for a company to survive that wasn’t quite as staunch a couple of decades ago. Competition. Automation. Mass production. Faux environments. Businesses can absolutely succeed but they need business minds obliterating the competition and formulating strong business plans to lead. These business plans have the capacity to prop up our factories and farms. But how do you attract business talent to the Arkansas Delta? To farm country?
I don’t know about you, but I can’t think of anyone more perfectly suited for these corporate-esque opportunities than our very own. These positions require degrees and competitive, current acumen. And suddenly, in the press, higher ed is a bad thing. Unnecessary. Frivolous. And those that pursue higher ed are oft shamed for not instead pursuing a certification or continuing on the line the forefathers walked.
Is it wrong to want more? Is it wrong to envision a future where Jill Jr. might very well draft the plan that saves the factory where her great-great-grandfather tilled the earth?
We have politicians yelling about job growth and job creation, yet we already in many industries lack the local talent to fill our current much-needed positions. And without this expertise, current companies will fail. Industries that whole zip codes rely on to simply live. Jobs, jobs, jobs.
All the while education budgets are being cut. Higher education gets the shaft and the bad press continues.
Sorry not sorry but I tend to have a bit more faith in our youngsters (and oldsters) these days. I do believe that there should be no shame in wanting more than previous generations. Lord knows I’m raising my kids to strive for more than I originally reached for – aim the highest.
Here’s what I for certain know. We have a researcher that works at the University of Arkansas who has made several innovative strides in an attempt to more greatly engage these generational farming youths and get their booties into a program that will empower them to be the literal face of agricultural success in the future for our state. Her accomplishments and ideas have absolutely wowed me and I’m admittedly pretty agriculture-ignorant. I do think the story is important and it translates across a variety of industries. As I try and formulate the best delivery vehicle for telling this story, I think why in the world do we have to market this obvious statewide gap so hard when you drive through certain areas of our state and see whole-town-size vacant lots where diners and gas stations used to be? I can drive less than four hours and see towns I used to stop and get gas in that were bustling a decade or two ago. We can see the future of not addressing resource issues in our state. And we question the efficacy of higher ed? We fall for propaganda that means if I support higher ed I despise mechanics for not getting a higher education degree. If I have my Master’s degree that means I consider myself better than a hairdresser, a plumber, a day laborer. This is all assumed. And it’s vitally untrue. It takes a nation of unique individuals taking different paths to complete the whole.
I envision a future where we all focus on pursuing our talents, dreams and interests, collaboratively contributing to the big picture. And in order to accomplish this, we need to cut through the rhetoric, recognize that even the idea of ‘fake news’ is fake, remove political focus from funding and invest in our people. This includes education.
Why do politicians continue to create fake news about higher education? To lessen funding. Remember, public education is non-profit. The only way to make money off of education is to privatize it. The cost of higher education goes up as federal/state funding goes down. And who does this benefit? Politicians. And for-profit lenders. And government investment in private money-making. Not the employability of our nation. You want to keep jobs in America? You want business growth in America? Invest in our people, educate our people so we can look inside our country for business talent and ensure that business talent is not just for the US elite.
I can guess that very little would threaten our government and it’s grotesque destruction of education than an educated public. Yet without an educated public, does our country remain business relevant? What about my State of Arkansas that I love so dearly?
The conundrum is how long do we allow this to go on? When did wanting less for our children, our country, our stature become ok? Proposed budget cuts in the billions? Thinking big picture here I’m not even close to ready to throw in the towel on this one.