A Personal Reflection for the Season

This reflection, first published on December 15, 2008, may be worth another look.

Christmas memories are personal, deep and important.

My family’s New York Christmases had the strong, first-generation influence of Western Europe. Cajun Christmases with their peculiarities of place and culture, half French and half Canadian and only in Louisiana, are unique and forever in my consciousness. West coast Christmases in California were an amalgam of eastern and western tradition, with everything always new. And, Texas Christmases had cowpokes instead of elves. Each of these held a unique detail and distinctiveness, and all are lost in the translation of which single Christmas memory is important for me.

Having lived in many places, it is difficult to piece together a particular event that holds special importance.  The tradition, and thereby the memory, is not in events or places but in the beliefs and relationships I hold.

For me, what is powerful about Christmas has one recurring theme and His name is Jesus Christ.

At Christmas, I celebrate the anniversary of the virgin birth of Him, as one member of the triune God – God made man – who came to the earth to be a substitute for me in the death and separation brought about by my sin.  This is a belief, my personal belief.  Through His perfection, He makes my way straight to the creator of the universe.  Through the power of His shed blood, I am forgiven of my inequity.  All of this, not by my work or effort, wisdom or intelligence, but by His grace.

Grace is difficult for me to grasp.

All things of value are worked for, I am told.  That of which I speak–grace–has ultimate and eternal value, and it is a gift that cannot be bought or earned.   By His virgin birth, I have affirmation of His place at the throne of God; by His crucifixion, I am shown the awfulness of my own behavior; and by comparison to Him as a man, I see my own lack of righteousness.

Filthy rags.

His resurrection is evidence of my eternal bridge, though Christ, to my heavenly Father.  This is a relationship, a personal relationship.  This is Christmas for me.

Please don’t be misled. I remember my Erector sets, Texaco trucks, bicycles and hockey skates – they brought happiness then and, in memory, they still do now.   Likewise, Mary and our sons remember and cherish these events, too.  I like turkey and ham, cakes and pies, family and all the other things that happen around the celebrations in our house.

I enjoy the festivity of the season.  I like gifts–both to give and receive. I am pleased for the retailers and the way that Christmas sales help balance their books, creating jobs and economic growth.  I enjoy the cold weather, the trees and the lights.

However, all of this is dull in comparison to the one shining memory that guides me every day of my life, and that is simply this:  I serve a risen Savior, born of a virgin to redeem me in my weakness and cleanse me of my sin. It is so very sharp and clear to me, and so crystalline.

If I allow myself to be childlike, every day is Christmas. Childlike for The Child.

The prophet Isaiah predicted it in Chapter 7, Verse 14:  Therefore, the Lord himself shall give you a sign; Behold, a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel.

None of this loses its luster with time.

Photo Credit: http://www.historytoday.com/alison-barnes/first-christmas-tree.


The Core of Any College Curriculum

image from The Market of Ideas www.college.columbia.edu.

The center of every university experience worth its salt is a grounding in the fundamentals of the human condition. For full and lasting impact on students, it should also be rigorous and challenging. Studies in history, literature, mathematics, “readin’, writin’ and arithmetic” are more important now than at any time since the Second World War. The Core Curriculum, sometimes called General Education, was born in the German Polytechnics.  The concept crossed the Atlantic to Manhattan, taking root at Columbia University in 1895, as the Gymnasium Program. It has changed dramatically, some claim diminished, as politically charged requirements to meet various contemporary social trends have overpowered the clarity of the original models.

As legitimate pressure from boards and elected leaders regarding the applicability of a university education grows, particularly as costs skyrocket, the workplace value of general studies is questioned. The ability of a person to interpret the Constitution of the United States, the Bible, algebraic expressions, or Melville’s symbolism in “Moby Dick” seems nice, but unnecessary.

You will not find a stronger proponent for practicality in a college education. However, when immediate utility exists without an appreciation for the broader social context in which the marketplace thrives or withers, value and utility fall. Market forces, vocational training, immediate skill-based employability do nothing to diminish the value of a strong core curriculum. In fact, they reinforce it.

A few years ago, I endeavored to help a student gain transfer hours from Jiliang University in Hangzhou, China. The student had no course in multiculturalism. He did have 12 hours of required Maoist philosophy, accepted by our university as college-level philosophy. He was also an accomplished speaker of Mandarin, passed the Tests of English as a Foreign Language, had a stellar academic record, had an excellent portfolio of architectural work and had traveled to nine countries. The argument from the Core Curriculum Oversight Committee was that these experiences did not satisfy the core curriculum multicultural requirement. The student did not need a course in multiculturalism. He lived a multicultural life. The very thing he sought to escape, the numbness of communist bureaucracies, hit him upside the head in the place he sought for the freedom to study. The point of this story is that too many core curricula, driven by narrow-mindedness, do not recognize the student as a human being with diverse life interests and experiences.

Core curriculum courses that emphasize topical aspects of the human experience to satisfy vocal political groups may have low long-term applicability and represent a fleeting fashion or sign of the times, rather than something of lasting value. Highly focused areas of interest are free online as avocations or pursuits of passion.

Randall Stross, professor at San Jose State University, argues forcefully in “A Practical Education: Why Liberal Arts Majors Make Great Employees” for the value of a rigorous liberal arts education. Edgar Bronfman, former CEO of the Seagram Corporation, also believes there is great value in a liberal arts education.

The manufactured dichotomy between an effective liberal arts and science experience and vocational expertise is a mirage according to a Harvard Business Review essay. The mutually supportive coexistence of applicable technical ability and critical thinking skills is the basis of a quality liberal arts experience. It is inarguable. Even Mr. Bronfman wants his distillers to understand the technicalities of chemical reactions. The 115,000 janitors, 83,000 bartenders, 35,000 taxi drivers and 16,000 parking lot attendants (all noble professions) that held bachelor’s degrees in 2012 did not all major in humanities and liberal arts disciplines but many areas of study.

In 1976, on the campus of Louisiana State University in a restroom at Hill Memorial Library, a young man had penned these words on the wall, “The problem with this place is everybody is trying to change the way you think.”  (Expletives revealing the depth of dissatisfaction have been excised.)  I reflected on his observation the rest of that day.

The next day, I returned to the same place.  Under the angry epithet was a more reflective proposition from another scribe in response to the first. ”If they don’t, demand your money back.”  The second scribe completed the thought and revealed his understanding of a university’s job.  I have reflected on these two observations from that day until this. Helping students learn to think clearly and reflectively and gain skills that will sustain life intellectually and materially is first purpose.

I started my studies, although I might not have said it exactly this way, “To learn to think like an architect.”  That’s what I paid for.  The core curriculum, coupled with excellent disciplinary training, provides a springboard to a thoughtful vocation and sound educational value for all who come calling.

A dedicated prospective student should find a challenging university that provides the opportunity to think and to do. Follow head and horse sense, you know, the balance of reason and experience ingrained in many by grandparents. Rigor, diligence and performance, valuable in every workplace, should be the core of every curriculum.


Resource Flows – Higher Education

 from www.businessinsider.com

State funding to universities over the past 50 years has decreased. As one example of this state and national trend, West Texas A&M University received 49% of its total budget from the state treasury in 1968. By 2017, the state contribution had been reduced by half, accounting for 24.4% of all expenditures. Tuition and fees in 1968 accounted for 15.2% of total spending. That number has more than doubled to 35% in 2017. Gifts, grants and contracts, (philanthropic income, research income and other contracted sources of revenue) have risen from 7.2% to almost 19%. Auxiliary income (room and board) has decreased from 24% in 1968 to a little over 10% in 2017. Sales, services and interest have increased from 4.4% to 11.4% in the same period. Resource flows are changing. When state contributions decrease, other resource flows must increase, or services and offerings are changed.

A recent study from The Center of Budget and Policy Priorities marks national higher education funding trends from 2008 to 2016. Four states saw increases in state funding over that eight-year period: only Montana, North Dakota, Wisconsin and Wyoming spent more on each college student than in 2008. Typical decreases in state support hover around 20% to 30% over the last decade. Arizona and Illinois have seen dramatic 50% reductions. Reductions in Texas over the past decade have been a nationally modest 17.2% and are improving incrementally.

Trends are universally clear and neglecting these changing patterns is a liability leading to ineffectiveness.

The need for increased tax dollars to support federal aid and a more robust state support of higher education is real. In addition, primary and secondary education needs, healthcare costs, public safety, infrastructure and other demands on government coffers are persistent, universal and immediate.

Recent proposals to tax tuition waivers and graduate student stipends create unintended consequences, according to University of North Carolina System Chieftain and former Secretary of Education under President George Bush, Margaret Spellings. Opportunity for all comes from reducing tax burdens, not increasing them. Taxing stipends and scholarships could lead to taxation of other charitable giving to universities and evaporate a critical resource stream in higher education. The idea of taxing university attendance is chillingly antithetical to a strong republic. Even more troubling – churches and temples, the American Heart Association, the United Way, the UNCF and hundreds of sundry enterprises intended to stimulate positive personal, social and community well-being may be next.

Universities tend to present an unsympathetic public face. For decades, as student debt has risen with underemployment and unemployment of college graduates increasing and the fiscal viability of college degrees appearing to decrease, colleges seemed indifferent. My experience in numerous university settings does not support that perspective. However, too often, perception equals reality.

The single greatest impact on resource flows is reducing absolute costs to students, families and universities. Rigorous engaged assessment of every resource and its use – state appropriations, tuition and fees, gifts and grants, auxiliary income, sales and services and family savings – is required. Flexibility and innovation might be attractive to an increasingly wary population of students. The need for access to higher education is real. Over the next decade, 65% of the workforce will require some form of market responsive, postsecondary educational experience. Study for the sake of study, disconnected from economic reality, will not work. Nearly 70% of the student population must borrow to attain a college education.

A degree with high debt and low employment utility is a wolf in sheepskin’s clothing. (For younger readers, “sheepskin” is an old colloquial expression for a diploma.)

Responsive universities should help lead the way out of this quagmire. Students and families should be well informed of the costs and benefits of a particular degree from a particular university before enrolling. Generalizations fail. A commitment to clearly communicating degree costs and potential starting salaries, in response to realistic debt loads, is required. A recent bipartisan proposal from U.S. Senators Rubio, Warner and Wyden–the “Student Right to Know before You Go Act”has value, but it will surely be imperfect. If a student changes majors or stops or opts out to get married and/or tend to a family situation, resource requirements, time to degree and starting salaries all may change.

Students should be encouraged to investigate alternatives to the traditional four-year university experience. Resource implications follow if community college or dual-credit opportunities through high schools are exercised. Viewing the experience in concert with work and family life, even if it takes eight years to complete a degree, might work best for some. A professional internship might be a degree requirement. Work experience heightens the possibility for discipline related employment upon graduation, and resource flows change. There are no panaceas here. Every strategy requires careful analysis of short- and long-term costs and benefits. Students are not customers, but the timeless rejoinder of caveat emptor, or buyer beware, applies. Every one of these suggestions require a reconfiguration and an individualized partnership between student and institution.

One size fits only one, not everyone.

My father and my father-in-law advised me to “get any college degree because it is worth it.” That advice was rock-solid in 1968. However, a half-century later, that counsel may not hold water. This reality is the truth of contemporary cost and value equations in higher education.

Student Debt

image from o-MONEY-facebook.jpg-photos

Universities endeavor to transfer the burden of blame to bankers and politicians. Sallie Mae holds almost $200 billion dollars of the debt. Like the housing bubble, much of the student debt problem involves politically driven, unsecured, unchecked cash flow for all who come asking. In addition, many believe too much student debt delays home purchases. The argument in favor of low responsibility cash is that more people with college degrees create economic prosperity—damn the cost. Universities blame parents, families, elected, and appointed officials for fueling the myth that everyone needs a college education; however, the solution to over borrowing is brutally honest and transparent action by universities.

The Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board suggests that any debt exceeding 60% of the anticipated first-year starting salary upon graduation is “a price too high.” While that particular percentage is subject to question, there are legitimate limits to what parameter of borrowing is flagrantly irresponsible. For example, an elementary school teacher in Texas, according to statewide averages by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, will receive a $55,000 starting salary; consequently, borrowing for such a student should not exceed $33,000. However, in Borger, Texas — a beautiful community in the center of the Texas Panhandle — the mean salary for an elementary teacher is $44,000. If someone wants to teach fourth grade in Borger–a noble aspiration, they should not borrow more than $26,400.   And there’s not much difference in Stinnett, Fritch or White Deer. The major metropolitan areas skew projections.

Students spend borrowed resources on alcohol, drugs and other non-essentials. A Student Loan Hero study (the reliability may be questionable) reveals believable spending patterns.  The class of 2017 spends borrowed funds as follows:  over 40% for monthly bills, such as rent and cell phone, 15% on clothing and accessories, 13% to restaurants and take-out food and 2.5% on drugs and alcohol. Even if this study isn’t 100% accurate, it should cause consternation for all.  As a point of comparison, I have seen other studies where alcohol and drugs reportedly constitute 10% of federally insured loan expenditures.

One glaringly simple alternative to accumulating too much debt, especially in the first two years, is by attending a community college, wherein costs decrease about 90%. High school dual-credit courses could reduce costs even further and economize the time students spend in post-secondary study. These options require careful attention to ensure a seamless credit transfer.  A university may accept many transfer hours, but hours not counting as credit for a particular degree program are common.  For example, community college algebra course will unlikely transfer toward a university engineering degree.

These perspectives may be uncomfortable.  But, students encumbered by a bushel basket of promissory notes is beyond uncomfortable.  Don’t believe me–ask them. Student debt triggered handwringing by politicians, university leadership, families and students is useless; however, universities can (and should) help educate fiscally responsive actions by students.

Much of public higher education funding is head-count and time-to-completion based.  The number of students enrolled and the number of credits secured, in almost every state in the nation, impacts university budgets. University leadership believes keeping people employed and continuing a growth-based model of management is job one, regardless of whether or not there is irresponsible fiscal decision-making with someone else’s money.  I offer two possible helps to students and families.  First, never take courses that don’t count in a degree program. Even the National Collegiate Athletic Association requires an annual Academic Progress Report in Division I athletics to assure that students make legitimate progress towards a degree plan, and not just accumulate credit hours. If student athletes do not perform academically, they forfeit the opportunity to perform athletically and receive scholarship funding that they would otherwise be entitled.  Second, would it be reasonable to not allow students to continue enrolling when they are not making progress towards a degree?

College experiences are valuable and change lives. However, costs must be part of the educational equation. Borrowing with an insufficient return on investment is foolhardy. Borrowing for nonessentials is a big mistake. Borrowing for expensive choices when similar lower cost alternatives are available is a lapse in judgment. Borrowing with the assumption of someone else paying the bill is immoral. Borrowing to have a good time without regard to long-term consequences is two steps north of stupid.

Tough?  Soft messaging has put too many college graduates in a hole too deep and has not worked for the past 30 years.  More troubling, the cost is borne by former students, those who graduate and even those who don’t, with or without jobs.