Grambling: Funding Higher Ed vs Expectations on Higher Ed

For football fans, the recent events at Grambling State University, where the college football team protested training and playing conditions to such an extent that the school was forced to forfeit Saturday’s road game, is a blemish on the legacy of legendary football coach Eddie Robinson.  Robinson coached at Grambling for 56 years, winning numerous conference championships and establishing Grambling as the pre-eminent football program at an historically black college/university (HBCU).  Pundits now lament a once-storied football program now in shambles:  facilities covered in mold and mildew, unsafe workout equipment, a laundry service that allegedly has led to staph infections, and travel upwards of 19 hours each way to participate in games.

Thrown into these stories, almost as an aside, is the economic reality facing Grambling State University, a public university incorporated into the University of Louisiana system:

Ask school officials why the football team and other programs are struggling and they quickly shift attention from personality conflicts and staffing decisions to the budget. Since 2007-08, overall state funding for Grambling has gone from $31.6 million to $13.8 million. The school has attempted to bridge that gap by increasing tuition, but it has fallen short, and cuts have been made across the board. Approximately 127 staff members have been laid off since 2008 and furloughs are common. Professors have also been asked to teach an extra class each year for free. Generally, the school has “cut to the bone,” says Leon Sanders, Grambling’s vice president for finance.

From this paragraph, the cause of Grambling’s short-term plight seems obvious – a substantial (57%) loss of public monies in a five-year period.  The question, in terms of education reform in an instance that would fit the economic definition of neoliberalism, is whether or not such catastrophe is due to the setback of a revenue stream or the institution’s inability to adapt to the ever-changing landscape of higher education.

Later in the original article, CNN/SI notes a few other economic points of interest:  football survived the initial yearly budget cuts after 2007-2008, the school has attempted to institute a student fee of $100/semester to help offset budget loss but has been unsuccessful, and there is very little alumni donation income for the school (though the story notes an alumnus who donated $12,000 to replace the tattered flooring in the weight room, a donation that in part led to the firing of head coach Doug Williams).  This information requires more context, though; Grambling State produced a clean audit report for the 2012-2013 school year, showing that the administration has been able to stop the budgetary hemorrhaging even in the wake of continual cuts.  Such dire efforts have led to a school that can keep the lights on and pass an auditor’s test, but leave facilities in disrepair and students disenfranchised.  Higher education can survive with less money, but at what cost?

Arguing that higher education funding has been decreasing for over a generation has been met with resistance from those who can point to budget figures that focus on an increase in the line-item amount states give to colleges instead of viewing the problem in relation to the percentage of the state budget or the ratio of the state funding to the average HE cost per student.  Focusing on the line-item amount is simplistic as it does not account for numerous economic variables, but it provided a point of contention.  There is no fuzzy math for the last five years:  states have slashed the amount they provide for higher education.  Since the 2008 recession, Louisiana has cut 42% of its funding for higher education.  Grambling State University, having lost 57% of its state monies, seems to have come out worse than the average Louisiana public university.  Whether you see merit in the term neoliberalism or write off any use of it as progressive whining, the economic theory behind the oft-pejorative is at play here:  a public university whose funding has eroded over a generation has seen catastrophic cuts in recent years, yet it fights to utilize private monies (namely from students) to remain solvent.  The university has succeeded, at least in relationship to balancing a budget and staving off the loss of accreditation.  The university’s ability to adhere to its mission, however, is less clear.

There are numerous, numerous variables at play in trying to relate the financial woes of a state university, brought to the forefront of mainstream media through collegiate athletics, to a larger argument about the erosion of education as a public good in America.  We can argue the microeconomics of each specific university facing hardship, but we can also look at the struggles of historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) as a whole.  We can compare endowments of public colleges, such as that of Louisiana State University – Baton Rouge ($692M), University of Louisiana at Monroe ($21M) and Grambling ($4.25M).  We can argue that education has never settled as a public good but rather has always balanced between public and private good (and save twenty years between World War II and the Vietnam War the balance has tended toward private) or we can take the words of Thomas Jefferson that all citizens should have access to quality education and understand the variable that has undergone change throughout history is not quality education but citizen.  We can question the economic worth of institutions such as Grambling that serve less than 7,000 students per year when there are more cost-effective education options, or we can look at research that pinpoints the importance of culture and environment in the learning context and view colleges as members of that environment rather than abstracted towers outside it.

The takeaway from the Grambling State University situation is that it took the erosion of a fabled football program’s facilities and coaching to put the stark cuts in public education funding into popular media.  Will this promote any discussion about education and society?  Will it go away because Grambling finds a way to clean up their facilities?  Or, worse, will there be no satisfactory resolution save the continued erosion of the nation’s Grambling State Universities?

*One point on the football aspect — This post does not condone the actions of administration toward the players in the football program. Students should be heralded for speaking out against unsafe practice conditions and travel arrangements (according to ESPN, the problem with bus travel is in part that school administration are flown to games while players are bused).  If Grambling’s administration does revoke scholarships based on student protest, their actions will be indicative of the “victim blaming” that is paramount when mainstream media critique the status of HBCUs.

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