Academic journal article Journal of the National Collegiate Honors Council

Growth = Bucks(?)

Academic journal article Journal of the National Collegiate Honors Council

Growth = Bucks(?)

Article excerpt

Many of us in honors education will readily agree that, if the equation above is ever true at all, it is a very sharp double-edged sword. I suspect that most of us who direct honors programs or colleges at public institutions have been sliced or diced more than once by an institution's growth imperatives. Although upper-level administrators often point to their honors programs with pride and tout the accomplishments of their honors students to alumni and benefactors, only a few honors programs and colleges actually report a funding baseline that adequately addresses all the needs of the program and its students; a consistent lament that has echoed for years throughout NCHC conferences is "if we only had enough funding, we'd do that too." To be fair to upper administrators, those of us in honors education need to admit that honors programs are the African violets of the academic floral landscape. In general, honors programs simply require more: they are more labor-, energy-, time-, and funding-intensive than programs for the bulk of the student population. In times of financial stress for higher education institutions (financial stress in higher education has become the status quo in Florida for at least a decade now), it can be difficult to shift funds to a high-cost program that sometimes serves less than 5% of the total student population when the institution as a whole is struggling to supply enough test tubes for the freshman chemistry labs or can't hire enough composition teachers to limit freshman composition classes to 22 to 25 students. Unfortunately, when viewed from the lens of a university president or chief accounting officer, the allocations that public institutions receive from their legislatures most often amount to flat budgets that barely cover increases in operational costs, particularly during times when a spike in energy prices can quickly consume whatever meager increase a rogue legislature might have deigned to grant during the last session.

Hence established programs at public institutions, be they honors or otherwise, find that increases in funding are often slow to come, and when they come, they are often tied to enrollment growth. In Florida, home of the Hanging Chad and Other Great Ideas That Have Not Been Imitated Elsewhere, we have a legislature that only, only, only provides new money for the state university system when new students appear, i.e., when we can demonstrate enrollment growth. If we can't, we should get ready for a cut; we are ecstatic if we received the same amount of funding we got last year--thank you very much, kind sirs--despite the steady increase in operational costs year after year. As Stanley Fish pointed out in a disdainful article titled "Access vs. Quality," recently published in the New York Times (Aug. 1, 2007), this type of legislative thinking leads quickly to a culture of institutional mediocrity as all things gravitate toward an under-funded malaise:

   The challenge is to combine first-class schooling with affordability
   and access. The temptation is to do things on the cheap.

Although much loved by legislative aides and the government bureaucracy, the practice whereby funding increases are directly and exclusively tied to enrollment growth is, almost by definition, doing it on the cheap since that approach allows no margin for enhancement or for advances in new directions. When additional funding is a direct function of rising numbers, it is not surprising that many honors programs, mine included, are under the imperative to grow, grow, grow. But enrollment growth by itself cannot fix the problem, as Fish also points out:

   The conditions that leave a university system depressed have
   been a long time in the making and will take time to reverse.
   Five straight years of steadily increased funding, tuition raises
   and high-profile faculty hires would send a message that something
   really serious is happening. … 
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