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2011 October 31 - 12:00 am

POV: Best of Times, Worst of Times: A Tale of Two Colleges

Brent Miller

To paraphrase Charles Dickens: It was the best of colleges; it was the worst of colleges. In “A Tale of Two Cities,” Dickens pens a story with late 18th century London and Paris as the backdrop. As with most great fiction, the setting is a lens to view an important moral issue of the day. I’d like to borrow this technique. In my tale of two colleges, I refer to two different institutions, one literally down the road from the other in a small southern city. The first is a flagship state research university and the second the local community college. I have had the honor of working for both and while they share much in common, there are alarming differences. These differences – and my story – can help us explore who we are as a people.

Wine from Cobblestones

We begin with my first job at the community college, the Paris of my tale. In “A Tale of Two Cities,” Paris was a place of starvation. A ruthless king and uncaring nobility, obsessed with power and wealth, drove the peasantry into the sheerest poverty. Commoners would stop on a city street to lick spilled wine from the cobblestones. Replace “king” with “governor” and “nobility” with “legislature” and my story’s stage is set. Also replace “commoners” with “educators” and “wine” with “resources needed to do their jobs.”

The college administration worked hard to make ends meet and provide the best education for its students, but one can only wring so much wine from a cobblestone. At each day’s end, there simply wasn’t enough funding to go around. The advisors were caring but too few to advise; the teachers were motivated but too overworked to inspire; the technology was installed but too antiquated to aid. The long lines at the student help desk grew longer. The staff’s long hours in the office followed suit. I once saw an administrator vomit and nearly faint behind a building on campus. She was deathly ill but so overloaded with work that she couldn’t take the day off. All the while, year after year, news from the state capitol continued its funereal cadence: cut the budget, cut the budget.

It should come as no surprise to an audience raised in contemporary capitalism that an institution dedicated to serving the least among us should receive the least among institutions. Our eyes were open when we took our jobs there, but that didn’t make the struggle any easier. On the average day 10,000 students from every walk of life graced our classrooms. In the average year we would be lucky if half of those left us with diplomas. Despite our best effort, we just couldn’t do it all. We were bailing water out of ship in a storm that we hoped was almost over, but secretly knew would never end.

From Paris, we move to London. For Dickens, London was no paradise either. The English poor were still poor, just better off than the French poor. London certainly fared the better, however. So it is with the other college in my tale.

Greener Pastures

After a few years in the community college’s employ, I acquired my current position just down the road at that bastion of modern education, that great accomplishment of the public treasury: the flagship state research university. Merely setting foot on campus revealed the first difference of a thousand differences. The university is bigger in every sense: bigger buildings, bigger library collections, bigger athletics programs, and certainly – most importantly – a bigger purse. That last distinction serves as the foundation for all distinctions. The university has money. It has money to furnish buildings, hire people, develop programs, and provide support. It has money to accomplish that which the community college cannot.

Here, advisors not only care, they have the numbers to advise all students who need it. Here, teachers are not only motivated, they have the support necessary to create dynamic classrooms and motivate others. Here, the technology is not only installed, it’s state-of-the-art and makes everything easier. Student lines at help desks are quite short, if they exist at all. Staff work normal hours and make for a pleasant peasantry. I have yet to see an administrator vomit behind a building, though I can’t make that claim of the students. The great university is not perfect, mind you, just dramatically better than the alternative. Bread, however stale, is still bread and far superior to wine from a cobblestone.

The King and His Money

As I mentioned earlier, the biggest reason for this massive difference between the two institutions is simply the level of resources allocated from on high. In a word: money. First, undergraduate tuition at the university is double that of the community college. Second, on the state funding side of the ledger, for every dollar per student the community college receives, the university receives a dollar and a half per student. Third, the university receives a mountain of cash each year from a list of research grants which runs the length of the king’s banquet hall. Compared to this Mount Everest, the meager fund given to the community college from teaching grants is a mere foothill, a quaint picnic spot in the shadow of the mountain.

All of this leads back to the King of Florida and his legislative court. The aristocracy of our state has made the conscious decision to fund one part of higher education over the other. After all, this isn’t so much the tale of two colleges as the tale of two college systems, separate but not even remotely equal. The twin colleges here are not unique: many other such pairings around the state – around the nation – face the same disparities.

This brings us to a moral question: Is the mission of the flagship state university somehow superior to the mission of the community college? Is the university more important to society than its smaller sibling? Based on financing, the nobility think so even if they don’t say so. The number of zeroes on the state’s annual check is a tacit admission of our value. Flip to the front of the book and read this tale again for the other forty-nine states in the union and once more for D.C. I don’t claim to have a logical or intellectual answer here, merely an emotional one. My heart bleeds for Paris.

On Fleeing France

I already miss my old colleagues down the road. Once in a while I’ll run into one at the store or a dinner. I feel guilty while making small talk, dancing around the topic of my departure. They eventually bring it up. I tell them with honesty that I left for purely pragmatic purposes. The stress, the overwork, the high expectations and low resources became too much. They nod that nod that says “I know what you mean.” In the final chapter, my heart aches for my French compatriots but I couldn’t stay with them. Life is better on this side of the English Channel.

An academic program specialist at Florida State University, the author formerly worked at Tallahassee Community College.

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