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Higher education on precipice of upheaval

June is the traditional month for college and university commencements, a time for looking back with some nostalgia and looking ahead with just a little trepidation at the uncertainty that comes with significant life changes.

Students will be going through the same emotions, too.

That the class of 2012 ventures forth into a job market that may be politely described as lackluster and unsettled is by now old news. They join members of the classes of 2008 through 2011 in graduating just in time to look for a job in the worst economy in multiple generations.

The real life upheaval, however, is in store for the colleges and universities handing out those diplomas.

The financial model upon which this country’s higher education system is based isn’t working, especially for public institutions.

Legislators and governors looking for places to close the gap between rising expenditures and stagnant or declining revenues have found spending for higher education a convenient line item in which to do some trimming.

College administrators have responded by saying, “Fine, if you give us less money then you get less say over how we run our shops.” The most important issue of control is setting tuition. Colleges are closing their own budget gaps by raising tuition, at a pace leaving parents and students aghast and burdened with debt levels that can never be repaid with degrees in esoteric fields of study.

The proliferation of financial-aid plans is supposed to mitigate those suggested retail prices, but colleges are running the risk of mimicking the health care system, in which no one knows for certain what anything actually costs, just that whatever the amount is they likely can’t afford it.

The easy way out of this mess is to hope for a fast and robust economic recovery that allows legislatures such as Washington’s to restore funding to its university system. But the recovery has been neither fast nor robust, and when or if the tax revenue does come back there’s going to be an incredible rumble over who gets it.

The much harder way out is to rethink the academic model and the financial model that supports it.

Do we need to send so many students to four-year schools, especially when some of the students that go there are poorly prepared, lack motivation and never emerge with an education that can be translated into employment?

Would they be better off getting a two-year degree at a community, vocational or technical school that will take less time and money and have a higher payback?

As for the four-year schools – does it have to be four years? Does it have to be in a classroom? Can or should those schools shed programs for which opportunity for gainful employment is slight? Or does that just make them longer versions of community college with football?

The dramatic restructuring higher education may be in for is likely to be greater than anything it has dealt with before – and that’s for a sector more tradition-bound and set in its ways than most.

Nor will the changes be limited to higher ed; they’ll be felt in the K-12 system as well. Given the bruising disputes over relatively minor changes such as charter schools, that would suggest change will come slowly, incrementally, or not at all.

But slow, incremental or nonexistent change isn’t going to help members of future classes or the institutions those students attend. To the class of 2012 – take a long last look around campus.

When you return for your 10-year reunion, the buildings and manicured landscaping may look the same, but if dear ol’ alma mater is to survive and be of service to students in the class of 2022, what goes on in those buildings may be barely recognizable.