Just last night, it was announced that the State of Kansas would be making its fifth round of budget cuts (cutting higher ed back to 2006 levels), now equaling a full $1 billion in cuts from of what was originally supposed to be a $6 billion state operating budget. Kansas is small potatoes. Students recently protested the 32% tuition increase in California designed to raise $505 million, Colorado will see another $145 million cut (on top of an initial $80.9M) in higher ed next year, Louisiana may lose up to 60% of their funding by 2012, Oregon dropped $118M, and… you know what, you get the picture. There’s plenty of blame to pass around, certainly, but there’s a another danger in store for higher ed too: brain drain.
I’ve written previously that higher ed has a huge challenge facing them when it comes to hiring talent because they must compete with the private sector over them. It’s a challenge because it’s difficult to get the best if you can’t even attract the best. But, when you can attract the best, you must also retain them. States all across the country are scrambling to cover shortfalls, and in most cases education is one of the top three money vacuums on their lists. I don’t care about blame. Blaming people won’t fix our problems. I care about repercussions and fixing. See, there are two problems with the current approach. The first is in most cases, if a state cuts funding for higher education below 2006 levels, they have to apply for a special waiver or risk losing Federal stimulus money. The second is that if they cut too much money, they risk damaging the system beyond repair. What can our system bear? That’s a question no one can answer, and we’re testing with elementary guess-and-check processes. It’s Russian Roulette with line item veto.
There’s your rub. If you are a smart, talented, motivated web developer, and you’re watching the system come down around your head, are you going to just sit there and watch it happen? Web is an interesting field. In a time of recession, it’s one area that people still throw money at. This is because of several reasons like cost shifting and trying new money making opportunities. As people are laid off, they might be inclined to build a small startup of some kind, and mom-and-pop-shops may try to improve the visibility of their business in the region or expand to bigger markets. One thing is for sure, it’s never a bad idea to have a few freelance clients on the backburner, and it’s very easy to do, if you know your trade. A smart person will always keep an ear to the wall in times like this, if only for those “just in case” moments. That doesn’t mean you want to leave or are trying to, but if you’re flying you’re always supposed to note where the exits are in case of emergency. Your paycheck should be no different. The first time a local company puts $70,000 on the table for a well-qualified, talented web developer, do you really think you can ignore it?
Governments will always bounce back from a recession slower than the private sector, and any administrator worth their salt will tell you it is infinitely easier to take money away from education than it is to get it back. Given the erosion of ground taking place, the question I pose back to you is to see if you think higher ed is in danger of losing some of it’s best and brightest minds in web development to the private sector in the mean time, and if that happens, how do we recover? I not only think we will lose some, but I would argue we already are, leaving the question to be more along the lines of just how many will fall. Teams are getting smaller, conferences are being cut, funding is slashed; how much more before you start giving thought to the opportunities that might lie in the clutches of the for-profit industry? Many people will cite the job security and benefits as a key reason for working under a state umbrella, but when that safety net is more secure with a company, or even when it is self-provided, where will that leave our colleges?
I know I talk about this a lot, but I love my job and the opportunities it has, and I’m becoming increasingly afraid for its future. There are mountains you can read on the philosophy of the place education has in a powerful, modern, functional society, and in my opinion most of it is on the money. When education is a target instead of a tool, I think you’re within sight of giving up. I would love to see some drastically different approaches. For one, states need to find another fund-cutting target. Anything. If you’re going to scuttle higher ed, then just get it over with, otherwise take it seriously. It’s cat and mouse funding the way states are currently behaving. Games waste our time and energy and are an enormous distraction. I’d also love to see new approaches to web development. Why can’t we start maintaining college sites as part of the education process, via an intensive and multilevel learning program for students? It’d be hard to establish, and it would take resources, but imagine the long term payoff it creates in ideas, opportunities, and products (i.e. an abundance of hopefully well trained and flexible web developers).
What do you think? Am I totally off in left field here or are you seeing the same trends?
photo credit: a shadow of my future self