Linking March Madness to sequestration
The Kansas City Star
It’s March Madness, a time of year when Americans awaken to the richness of our colleges and universities. Suddenly we become fans of schools we’ve never heard of, and cheer for teams that seem hopelessly outmatched.
We celebrate the mascots of random schools—Go Creighton Bluejays! Go Albany Great Danes!—and root for historically black colleges and small-conference upstarts—Go Southern!—as if we have personal stakes in their success.
Contained within this annual basketball pageant is a reflection, albeit an increasingly commercialized one, of the values for which American colleges stand: that any student and any team can succeed if they work hard enough.
But the mood is less celebratory on many college campuses these days. This is because, in the real world of college, students, professors, and administrators face a different form of March madness.
This March also marks the first stages of implementation of the Balanced Budget and Emergency Deficit Control Act, otherwise known as the sequestration. And, while the impact of sequestration on our nation’s bridges, roads, and infrastructures has been widely reported, its long-term impact on colleges and college campuses will be no less severe.
For instance, sequestration triggers the largest funding cuts ever to American education programs. Lawmakers cut 86-million dollars for college student financial assistance, 71-millon dollars for student aid administration, and 30-million dollars for science education, all part of a massive 2.5-billion dollar evisceration of the Department of Education. At the same time, sequestration raises the loan fees that students and their families will pay for college loans.
And it eliminates many work-study opportunities, college-access programs, and campus-based aid programs. At schools like Vanderbilt, where I teach, these types of interventions offset college expenses for vast populations of students—and particularly lower income students whose families struggle to afford tuition, room, and board.
The cuts will thus disproportionally impact minority students who do not qualify for NCAA scholarships because their grace and aptitude register in classrooms rather than on basketball courts.
Funding cuts will also gut many of the initiatives that help lower income students prepare for college before they arrive, such as summer science and math programs. Many schools across the U.S. depend upon these types of programs to diversify their student bodies in important ways, and to open college classrooms to students from across the American economic spectrum. Administrators rightly argue that sequestration will reverse these trends, leaving college affordable for only a select few.
Sequestration also ends many of the grants and programs that help undergraduate and graduate students gain valuable research experiences that they need to jumpstart their lives after graduation. For instance, sequestration slashes the budgets of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, the National Science Foundation, and the Energy Department—and it even exenterates the miniscule budget of National Endowment for the Humanities.
These cuts mean that colleges and universities will receive far fewer research grants. And, that as a result, fewer opportunities will exist for students to intern with engineers, or assist in genetics laboratories, or study the impact of elections, or research library archives, or participate in the multitude of other career-boosting opportunities that college campuses allow.
Finally, sequestration severely curbs the intellectual products, and indeed the jobs, that colleges and universities provide to society at large. This is because the cuts dramatically reduce research output and curtail our trained workforce. For instance, sequestration also slashes the budgets of the National Institutes of Health, meaning less research into cancer or diabetes or cardiovascular disease.
And it reduces the research budget of the Department of Defense, whose university-funded engineers helped build the Internet. Sequestration also cuts Teacher Education Assistance (TEACH) grants, meaning fewer trained teachers for our schools.
Critics contend that these cuts are needed, and that college is in any case overpriced. And to be sure, many schools have begun important conversations about limiting the cost of tuition. At the same time, such criticisms overlook the fact that sequestration will make college far harder for many American families to afford.
And, that the overall impact will produce a chilling effect on colleges across the nation, but will be particularly hard felt at small colleges and communities like the ones for whom we cheer during March Madness.
This should take nothing away from our enjoyment of a tournament that stirs yearly passions about college. But beneath the bracket debates and the pomp and the face painting, one cannot help but feel remorse for what we as a society are doing to what college represents. Go college! we might yell at our television sets and computer screens as our teams rise and fall.
But beneath the cheering, we as a nation sequester more than budgets or funds. We sequester the opportunities afforded to the next generation. And we sequester the American college dream.
Jonathan M. Metzl directs the Center for Medicine, Health, and Society at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, TN.