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Austerity Education: The Real Agenda of Pathways
[Editor's note: You can click here to sign a national petition calling for a moratorium on the implementation of the Pathways curriculum at CUNY. Thousands of faculty members have already done so; you can read some of their comments here.]
Why is the CUNY administration risking so much for Pathways? If you accept the premise that Pathways is about “facilitating student transfer,” 80th Street’s position seems inexplicable. Apparently for the sake of implementing a new transfer policy, the CUNY administration is willing to degrade general education, alienate almost the entire faculty, withstand two lawsuits, resort to threats and intimidation, force department chairs to choose between academic integrity and departmental survival, give college presidents the message that they may be fired if they don’t deliver votes on Pathways courses, risk national censure for violating academic freedom, and face certain administrative chaos next year.
NOT ABOUT TRANSFER
It doesn’t make sense. If Pathways really were about facilitating transfer, there would be rational ways to address the problem and restore equilibrium, even now. Elected faculty governance bodies, already at work on an alternative proposal, could be given a year to come up with a solution that enhances rather than undermines the CUNY education. Existing pathways – ones that work well – for transfer between colleges and departments could be expanded. Connections between two-year and four-year colleges could be deepened. It might even be possible to reimagine the whole concept of general education for a heterogeneous, striving, urban population. But any honest approach to student transfer would have to include what the Pathways proposal studiously avoids: the urgent need for more investment. Most of the difficulties students experience in transferring would disappear if CUNY were funded at a level that allowed enough sections of classes, enough full-time faculty, and enough counselors to give students the individual attention they need.
The CUNY administration hasn’t considered the obvious alternative approaches to improving student transfer problems because Pathways is not about transfer. It is about “the college completion agenda” – a national higher education agenda that, while it names a worthy goal, is ultimately tailored to reinforce economic austerity. It is promoted by many of the same interests that are behind the testing-not-teaching “reform” movement in K-12 education. Even the name Pathways is not original; it has appeared since 2005 in documents issued by the Lumina Foundation, one of the main proponents of the agenda, and a foundation whose assets derive from the student loan industry.
We make a serious error of scale if we think of Pathways as a purely local phenomenon or the brainchild of Vice Chancellor Logue. In a policy world where universities are increasingly judged – and funded – on a single measure of success, college completion, 80th Street is attempting to make sure CUNY measures up. CUNY is actually a latecomer to this trend, which has already remade general education at many other public university systems, often over faculty resistance. Pathways is the CUNY administration’s attempt to make sure that CUNY is not classified according to this new standard, as it was in 1999 as “an institution adrift.”
To understand the CUNY administration’s loyalty to Pathways, we need to grasp how influential the college completion agenda has become. Public policy on public higher education has been privatized. Private foundations, often with support from the finance industry, have carved out a huge role for themselves in public policy, especially in the arena of education. Starting about 2005, just as public funding for higher education was going into steep decline nationwide, many of the private interests that have funded the drive to reshape K-12 education through relentless testing, charter schools, closing of “failing” public schools, mass firing of teachers, and widespread standardization have focused on colleges and universities. Lumina, and later the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, played a major part in shifting the focus of national higher education policy from access to completion. They poured money into grants for states and universities that were willing to raise completion rates. Together with other foundations, they funded the new organization Complete College America. President Obama’s announcement in 2010 of the goal of 60% of Americans with college degrees comes right out of this agenda, as does his current policy paper that includes streamlining transfer of credits as part of higher education reform.
Let’s be clear: college faculty and staff are uniformly in support of college completion. That’s one big reason we do what we do. Too many students in US colleges and universities take much longer than they had planned to graduate, and far too many never graduate at all. But the reasons for low graduation rates nationally, as at CUNY, have far more to do with underfunding, student debt, and the multiple economic pressures on middle- and working-class students than with problems in student transfer. The solution is to give students more, not less. What we need is a dramatic reversal of the deliberate economic austerity policies that have been used to justify starving public higher education of funds.
Instead, the college completion agenda, like its better-known counterpart of “education reform” in K-12 schools, suggests that private corporations can fill the void. The standardization of curriculum that is the heart of Pathways is akin to the standardization we have seen elsewhere at CUNY, such as with CUNYfirst. A CUNY-wide general education structure not only consolidates central control and deprofessionalizes the faculty. It also provides an opening, as the “reform” agenda has in the schools, for standardized tests, standardized syllabi and even standardized faculty evaluation--all offered at a profit. States and local governments spent $88 billion in higher education funding in 2011; if even a fraction of that were privatized, the profits could be enormous. As many commentators have observed, education is one of the few remaining arenas in which the market is not yet dominant; Pathways is part of structural adjustment for universities.
However benign the goal of improving graduation rates, Pathways is not politically innocent. It is austerity education for jobs in an austerity economy. It is about spending less per student. It is about graduating more students in a shorter time at lower cost. Most cruelly, it is about lowering the expectations of working-class, poor and middle-class students. Pathways, like everything else in America, is about race.
Ultimately, Pathways and its analogues in other states are a means of rationing higher education. The great expansion in access to higher education that characterized the last 40 years is already being reversed, precisely as the majority of the college-age population becomes people of color. Working-class and poor students who do manage to stay in college will find a stripped-down, just-enough college education. Higher education will continue, but it will be rationed. That’s why the battle at Queensborough is so significant. There, one department’s faculty took a stand against the rationing of education for their students. For that they were threatened with everything from cancellation of courses to firing of untenured faculty. Yet now faculty across the University are preparing to take a similar stand.
If you need to be convinced that education is being rationed, take a look at the full-page ads for the new, for-profit school Avenues, where tuition is $39,750 a year. Its chairman is Benno Schmidt, Jr., Chair of the CUNY Board of Trustees. While the general education curriculum Schmidt ushered through for CUNY students does not mandate even a single required foreign language course, the curriculum at Avenues – starting in elementary school – promises fluency in at least one additional language. Fluency is essential for the children of the rich, apparently, but even one required three-hour language course is too extravagant for the children of the poor.
When the Chicago teachers went out on strike, largely over the dilution of education and deprofessionalization of teachers, their president Karen Lewis announced, “We are fighting for the soul of public education.” Something very like the soul of higher education is at stake in Pathways.