• Confessions of a Community College Dean

    In which a veteran of cultural studies seminars in the 1990s moves into academic administration and finds himself a married suburban father of two. Foucault, plus lawn care.

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Alaska and Connecticut

Writing off entire populations is not the way to ensure long-term prosperity.

February 20, 2019
 
 

Alaska is proposing catastrophic cuts to its public flagship university, while allowing a small increase for its community colleges.

A few years ago, Connecticut visited harsh cuts upon its community (and regional state) colleges, while increasing funding for its public flagship university.

The cliche about the states as “laboratories of democracy” has some truth to it.  

I’ll start with the obvious. As different as the two states are in many ways, they both need robust higher education if they’re going to prosper.  In Alaska’s case, the economy depends significantly on a declining natural resource with volatile prices. Given Alaska’s location, it’s rarely on the shortlist for Fortune 500 companies looking to relocate.  Anchorage is about the size of Cincinnati, but the second largest city in the state has fewer than 35,000 people. With both the population and the economy tightly clustered in a few places, it’s vulnerable. Diversifying its economy beyond resource extraction will require healthy higher education.  Failing to diversify guarantees long-term decline.

Connecticut has more people on less land, but it faces similar issues. Its model of bedroom suburbs around financial centers isn’t holding up very well as the economy shifts, and its high-traffic, high-cost environment doesn’t attract companies like it once did.  It can’t win people over with its sunny, warm climate, it doesn’t have oil, and it can’t compete on cheap land. If it’s going to prosper, it’s going to have to compete on the high end. That means having a well-educated workforce. 

The two states look different and have taken superficially different approaches.  The common denominator, besides budget cuts, is a failure to look at the long term.  (To be fair, these two states have no monopoly on that.) Alaska has relatively few jobs right now that require a bachelor’s degree and higher, so focusing limited resources on middle-skill jobs makes short-term sense.  Connecticut is expensive enough that living decently usually requires a higher level of education, so focusing limited resources on the university can make a certain short-term sense.

But neither makes sense over time. In Alaska’s case, surrendering to being an extraction economy means yoking itself to diminishing returns over time.  In Connecticut’s case, writing off middle-skilled jobs means simply acceding to ever-increasing inequality, which is already impressive. Wealth polarization leads to residential segregation and political polarization, which won’t help matters. You don’t educate for the society you have.  You educate for the society you want to build.

Making the long term seem concrete and relevant is a challenge when political leaders are tied to short-term election cycles, and voters have learned what Peter Sloterdijk calls the “enlightened false consciousness” of cynicism. It’s easy to cast aspersions on potential in favor of the immediate and concrete. It’s also self-defeating.

Alaska needs scientists, and Connecticut needs welders. Writing off entire populations is not the way to ensure long-term prosperity. Yes, I’m professionally affiliated with a community college, and as a writer, it’s my beat.  But the reason for that is an affinity for inclusion.

The need for real political leadership has rarely been clearer. Here’s hoping...

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