Photo: Walter Cumming/AJC
Photo: Walter Cumming/AJC

College professor: How do I argue for raise when corrections officer faces salary cut?

Academic says strengthening higher education fortifies Georgia against economic downturn

In a guest column today, Matthew Boedy, an assistant professor of rhetoric and composition at the University of North Georgia, talks about the governor’s decision to spare the state’s institutions of higher education from the budget ax. 

Boedy notes the 2020 higher education budget includes almost $54 million in merit-based pay increases and employee recruitment and retention funds in the university and technical college systems. 

He poses a good question: “How do I argue for a raise when a corrections officer down the street is getting a salary cut or perhaps even laid off?”

Read his column to learn the answer: 

By Matthew Boedy

News about the state budget cuts ordered by Gov. Brian Kemp keeps getting worse

Since this is an education blog, the question for me is on the sparing of K-12 and higher education. 

One certainly can argue – as have others – that because these two were not spared drastic cuts during the Great Recession, they should be protected now. I suppose also one might speculate the governor doesn’t want to cut his beloved University of Georgia. 

At any rate, whatever the reason, the cuts facing other parts of the state – from corrections to agriculture to many, many others – forces me as a professor to defend higher education. How or even can I sway those losing salaries and jobs that I and others at universities and colleges across the state should not also suffer in similar ways? 

According to the Georgia Budget & Policy Institute, funding for the university system’s budget in the 2020 cycle, which started July 1, increased $147 million, or 6.1%, over the 2019 budget. That includes $86 million for enrollment growth and other rising costs. It also includes $209 million for new construction and major renovations. 

Alongside noting salary cuts elsewhere, I should note the 2020 higher education budget includes almost $54 million in merit-based pay increases and employee recruitment and retention funds in the university and technical college systems. 

How do I argue for a raise when a corrections officer down the street is getting a salary cut or perhaps even laid off? 

First, it is never just about comparison of one to another. It is about the greater good. As the GBPI notes, “When the state keeps up its contribution of higher education costs, colleges and universities can more easily maintain their tuition and fees.” 

Tuition has skyrocketed around the nation because states have systematically abandoned higher education. 

Dr. Matthew Boedy

PBS reports: “Most Americans believe state spending for public universities and colleges has, in fact, increased or at least held steady over the last 10 years, according to a new survey by American Public Media. They’re wrong. States have collectively scaled back their annual higher education funding by $9 billion during that time…” 

And that trend is not just in the past decade. 

According to the Chronicle of Higher Education, Georgia State University lost more than 30% of its state funding from 1987 to 2012. UGA lost almost 18%. My own school, the University of North Georgia, lost 34%. 

In simple terms, loss of state funding means higher tuition. 

So what do I say to someone losing their job? I grieve with them. And then suggest if they don’t have a college degree, now might be the time. 

Because by many indications, some economic downturn is coming. Why can be left to federal politics. But Georgia can face it with a stronger higher education system. 

There is a coming downturn for higher education, too. On campus, there is much talk about the lowered birth rate and therefore an enrollment cliff. According to U.S. News & World Report, “Scholars estimate that nearly 2.3 million fewer babies were born between 2008 and 2013.” Add 18 years to those fewer births and you see the problem. 

To make the impact local, at a school like mine, a regional four-year institution, we could lose somewhere between 7 and 11% of enrollment. 

And this brings me to my job. 

Hechinger notes, “Regional colleges will be under pressure to cut liberal arts courses and expand professional programs, such as law enforcement, that students feel will translate into a good-paying job.”

While the Georgia State Patrol faces steep cuts now, might schools take the easy road and cut English departments? It would not be the first time. 

But since the last recession, we have learned some things.

First, The New York Times recently noted “the conventional wisdom” that argues “computer science and engineering majors have better employment prospects and higher earnings than their peers who choose liberal arts” is not true over a career. “The advantage for STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) majors fades steadily after their first jobs, and by age 40 the earnings of people who majored in fields like social science or history have caught up.”

The reasons for this? Technological skills change fast. But also valuable “soft skills” like problem-solving, critical thinking and adaptability taught in liberal arts degree programs are “hard to quantify... [and] don’t create clean pathways to high-paying first jobs.”

But “they have long-run value in a wide variety of careers.”

Second, to create new opportunities, we need to see beyond the coming moment and plant in students those skills needed long-term. 

In the spring I am set to teach a course called Introduction to Professional Writing. 

I will teach not only the skills of such an area but how those skills can translate into any number of fields. And also how such skills create new fields. 

Why is it fair that higher education – and its humanities degrees – are spared this round of cuts? Because we play an important role in creating the state of employment in the decades to come. 

It is difficult to argue that one person’s present should be downsized or even altered to invest in the future. But it is possible, if we see higher education as the center of our economy, not a place for the few. 

Not everyone needs or wants a college degree. But it would be nice to offer it to as many as we can. So all of us can make the common good better. 

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About the Author

Maureen Downey
Maureen Downey
Maureen Downey has written editorials and opinion pieces about local, state and federal education policy since the 1990s.
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