The State of Higher Education in Today's Economy

Every college and university president across the country can readily testify that the current economic meltdown has impacted just about every line in their budget sheets. Public colleges and universities are in bad shape, as state budgets across the country are reeling from the effects of an economy that has gone into crisis mode. As unemployment and underemployment accelerates in almost every part of the country and businesses slow down, state and local governments have seen tax revenues plummet. Private colleges and universities have seen their endowments shrink precipitously. As of December 2008, the Harvard University endowment had shrunk by some $8 billion â?? a loss of 22%, and Harvard officials predicted that the loss could be as much as 30% by the end of the fiscal year in June.

In California, where the recession hit harder than in most other states, most private colleges had seen their endowments shrink by 20% to 30% by the end of 2008. The governor slashed the University of California and California State University budgets by 10% in 2008 fiscal year and more cuts are on the way as the state's budget sinks deeper into more deficits every day. On the other hand, students have received the bad news that another 10% increase in tuition is on the way. Besides, most aspects of college and university operations have been deeply affected by reduced income. Building projects have been put on hold, library hours have been reduced, part-time faculty have been laid off and class sizes have been increased. At Stanford University, top administrators have voluntarily taken a 10% pay cut.

However, it is the students and their parents who are asked to bear the consequences that have befallen America's institutions of higher education from the country's economic deep recession. The costs to attend America's colleges and universities, both private and public, have been rising at a rate that has far outpaced inflation for many years. Furthermore, students whose family income has dwindled thanks to layoffs and inability to borrow money to cover college costs have had to put their education on hold. The private student loan market has dried up and other financing options have been frozen out by the tuition and fee increases at public colleges and universities. In California, the governor has proposed to cut the financial assistance provided by the Cal-Grant program, while at the same time asking University of California and California State University to increase tuition by 10%.

Current data about the financial health of colleges is not readily available. Unlike publicly owned corporations that are required to report their financial results on a quarterly basis, 501c (3) organizations report only annually and with a significant delay on the IRS Form 990. These forms do not predict the future that we are now living, but they do allow us to make some inferences about the current financial health of higher education institutions. According to higher education economists, the current cash shortage conditions are likely to have a detrimental impact on independent colleges and universities with the following characteristics:

  • States with large numbers of private institutions
  • The Northeast and high-growth regional or local urban cores and corridors now slowing
  • Serving economically disadvantaged students.
  • History of low fund-raising performance
  • Serving high proportions of minority students
  • Founded by a religious group and now serving a wider clientele

However, the reality is not all grim for adults seeking to further their education. Currently, the federal government has taken viable steps to loosen the credit market and inject money into student loan programs. This is certainly good news for anyone who is considering going back to school. As a matter of fact, in times of recession, it is recommended that those individuals who lost their job, those who never earned a higher education degree and those whose skill sets are outdated to consider going back to school. This recommendation is certainly germane to the fire and emergency personnel who serve as volunteers and who have earned a number of national and state certifications, but possess no academic degrees that better represent their qualifications in an increasingly competitive market with limited jobs.

Making the Right Choice

As a fire and emergency professionals contemplate returning to school, there are few criteria to consider when selecting an academic program:

  1. Program relevance, professional recognition and track record. Regardless of your ultimate goal as a fire and emergency professional, it would work in your advantage in terms of competitiveness and service to choose a degree program that is focused and specialized enough to meet the needs of your fire department and the community. A degree in fire science with concentration in fire administration or fire prevention and fire technology is viewed as desirable these days by most fire departments and state fire marshal offices. The Fire and Emergency Services Higher Education (FESHE) school consortium sponsored by the National Fire Academy offers exactly these kinds course specialization.

    The FESHE curriculum is the product of decades of collaborations among a team of subject-matter experts from seven consortium colleges and universities and numerous community colleges and fire departments in the United States. Most community colleges that offer lower-division fire science courses follow the FESHE model of higher education. Upon completing an associate of science degree in fire science from a FESHE provider, contact one of the seven consortium schools in the United States (also known as the Degrees at a Distance Program) that offer the upper-division baccalaureate FESHE curriculum via distance online. Cogswell College in California is a popular choice for many fire and emergency professionals since the program is affordable, is regionally accredited and offers a variety of financial aid options.

  2. Accreditation and certification. Continued regional accreditation is an important indicator that a school is reputable and has met certain quality standards set by accreditation agencies approved by the U.S. Department of Education. In the U.S., the most widely recognized accreditation for degree-granting programs comes from the six regional accreditation commissions.

    It is your prerogative to do your homework in this regard; ask about when the school/program was most recently accredited and by what agency, then locate accreditation documentation on the school website or request it. You do not want to earn a degree from a non-accredited institution that no employer will recognize. Beware of diploma-mill scams and ascertain that the program/school of your choice is certified by the National Fire Academy and local state fire marshal office to offer the FESHE curriculum.

  3. Financial aid availability. A quality distance education program/school provides for a variety of financial aid packages (scholarships, grants and student loans). Per the popular option, federal student loans, your school must be Title IV eligible, which proves that the institution meets the U.S. Department of Education criteria for extending federal loans to its students. Many of the newer distance education institutions are still awaiting Title IV status, as distance education is a new endeavor in the business of higher education. Contact the financial aid officer of the school of your choice and discuss your options.

Here are more questions to consider as you contemplate a return to school.

  • Does your employer have tuition reimbursement as an employee benefit? Some fire departments pay 100% of the cost, some a fixed percentage. Most require a certain grade, usually C or better, for reimbursement.
  • Is your family willing to support your efforts? To do your best, you need to have the backing of the people closest to you. It is best to obtain their commitment before you begin a program.
  • Are you ready to forego some spring days working or playing outside to work on papers or finish readings?
  • Is your employer going to support you? Can you use the department computer at work to draft a paper? If you have free time on the job, is it OK to study?
  • Is your life in balance enough that you can give schoolwork your undivided attention?
  • If you are wondering, "Will further education advance my career and help me do my job better?" the answer is a definite yes. You will never be the same person and employee after you expand your learning base.

Prepare to Compete

The prospect of returning to school for fire and emergency services professionals after many years of hiatus can be a challenge that many approach with apprehension and trepidation. In these tough, unpredictable economic times, it makes perfect sense to go back to school, strengthen your learning base and credentials, and be ready to compete for lucrative jobs once the economy recovers.

In our information technology age, this prospect appears more and more a real possibility toward earning a higher education degree, not only for personal purposes to fulfill a dream and serve as a role model to our children, but also to increase and update our professional references and knowledge, better serve our community, and swiftly adapt to the changing nature of our world today. The existence and availability of the FESHE model of higher education through a network of accredited colleges and universities further facilitates this task to a level of peace of mind.

YOUNES MOURCHID, Ph.D., is an associate professor and the director of the Degrees at a Distance Program (DDP) â?? Fire Science at Cogswell Polytechnical College in Sunnyvale, CA.