Friday, October 16, 2009

OH YEAH -- DO THEY ALSO GRADUATE THERE?

If Akron had a writer laureate, it would be my Patchwork Nation-Akron colleague David Giffels, a longtime newspaper columnist and book author. His September 24 blog titled “OH YEAH – THEY ALSO PLAY FOOTBALL THERE” inspired my writing this piece.


With bands, barbecues, fireworks blasts, parachutists and a sold-out crowd of over 30,000 people, the University of Akron (UA) celebrated opening day of its brand new football stadium. Besides excited students and alums, there were university, government and business leaders sitting in premium seats, munching upscale concessions, hobnobbing, glad-handing and celebrating this $61.6 million expenditure. Adding to the festivities, the UA Zips football team annihilated the “nobody-ever-heard-of-before” Morgan State 41-0.

I know this all secondhand because although I was offered premium seats for the game I declined. First, I’m not a UA graduate so nostalgia wasn’t in play. Second -- in what Nobel Prize winning economist Paul Krugman calls an “education recession” -- I think spending millions of dollars on a football stadium isn’t the best investment of our community’s financial treasure.

But wait you say! Won’t this glorious stadium entice more young people to go to college? As a matter of fact, UA has enjoyed increased enrollment in recent years by enhancing its urban landscape using many millions of dollars to add 11 new structures, including new academic buildings and fancy dorm rooms. Plus there’s the new student union with a movie theatre, Starbucks, food court, billiards room and bowling alley and the new recreation center with a 56-foot rock climbing wall, three-court gymnasium, leisure pool, spa, lazy river and cafe. BUT, according to the Akron Beacon Journal newspaper, the university’s graduation rate is below 40%. Obviously UA is doing a better job getting students to enroll than getting them graduated.


In a recent New York Times column, Krugman reported that the U.S. -- once the leader in educating its young -- has fallen behind other advanced economies. This acclaimed Princeton professor wrote, “If you had to explain America’s economic success with one word that word would be education.” Yet today America has a college graduation rate below the average across all advanced countries.

The current economic crisis has further assaulted our declining educational statistics with increased teacher/professor job losses due to decreased state and federal funding. Universities are canceling faculty searches, hence class sizes are larger. Plus they’re shifting to non-tenure-track and part-time instructors who can be paid shamefully low wages and no benefits. At UA 60% of its faculty is non-tenured or part-timers. According to an October 3 Beacon Journal article, one part-time UA professor “earns the annualized equivalent of $8.65 an hour.”

Maybe that’s why I overheard this conversation between two stock girls bagging loose potatoes in my neighborhood organic market. “Yeah, I just couldn’t afford to go back to the U. this fall. Why did you quit?” said one. The other answered, “My husband graduated two years ago, and I can earn almost as much working here as he does. It’s not worth the time or money.” Perhaps she’s married to a part-time professor.

This is a particular problem for Akron, which is in Northeast Ohio where only 25.2% of the population age 25 and up holds a four-year college degree. Even Detroit and Buffalo have more college grads, and growing areas such as Austin, Texas and Raleigh, North Carolina approach 40%. According to a September 27 Beacon Journal editorial, economic analyses invariably show that talent drives economic development and what measures talent is the amount of higher education.

Once I questioned an acquaintence -- who already had a bachelor’s and two master’s degrees -- why he was applying to law school. He explained that he grew up in a family of Holocaust survivors. They taught him that people can take away his money, his house, his family and all his worldly treasures, but no one can take away the treasures he puts in his mind.

Now back to football – following the gala stadium opening the Zips quarterback was suspended from the team for an undisclosed infraction of team policy, an assistant coach was put on leave under allegations of violating NCAA recruiting rules and a lineman was suspended until the outcome of a felonious assault charge is resolved. The next week in front of a half-full stadium, the Zips' back-up quarterback led them to a 38 to 21 loss to Indiana. They lost on the road to Central Michigan 48 to 21. Back in the new stadium for Homecoming, the Zips lost to Ohio University 19 to 7. In the first half, the back-up quarterback suffered a torn ACL to his left knee and is out for the season.

Foolish actions by players and coaches or just a hard-hitting tackle can take away a university’s hopes for an exciting football season and crowds at a new $61.6-million stadium, but no one can take away the educational treasures a university puts in the minds of its graduates.

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