Finding a Niche
Sangamon State U. after twenty years
February 20, 1992
Apart from the many local students who got a college degree cheaply and conveniently by attending classes up the road, Sangamon State University, the larval version of today’s University of Illinois Springfield, disappointed the hopes of everyone associated with it. This was not the fault of the people who ran it or taught there, but the result of a confused founding mandate and uncertain stewardship by its state government parent.
Twenty years ago some people in suits gazed across the cornfield south of town. "If we build it," the suits said, "they will come."
The students didn't come, at least not in anything like the numbers that the people who planned Sangamon State University expected. So now the state of Illinois is stuck with another university it doesn't need.
The U.S. must be the most over-schooled and under-educated nation on earth. About the only factories of any size we have opened in the post-OPEC age are degree factories, and none is more redundant in a shrinking economy than Sangamon State. Twenty years after its founding, it may finally have found its niche: Last fall the school signed up a record number of students—because, SSU officials gamely admitted, college costs have risen so that area students can't afford to go away to real universities.
As it has been from the start, SSU is a small example of a larger trend. In the 1970s and 1980s new campuses popped up in the Illinois countryside like shopping malls. A new community college system, a new medical school, branch campuses of senior institutions, expansions of existing campuses, all authorized in obedience to the universal marketing maxim that no consumer should have to travel farther than fifty miles to buy whatever he wants. Like the malls, this expanded higher education system offered merely more choices from among the same old goods—you might say the system was expanded without being added to—but the shoppers flocked to them nonetheless.
The expansion of college opportunities that began in the 1960s was part cause and part result of a general ratcheting up of career expectations. Colleges and universities became job-certification mills, abetted by state legislators who passed new licensing standards pushed upon them by trades and crafts eager to elevate their practitioners to "professional" status. (And their salaries; tougher standards have the happy effect of restricting supply and thus enhancing the jobs and income prospects of the certified.) As the old head nurse became the health systems management specialist, the price of service went up even if the quality didn't.
For example, the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants by 2000 will require new members to have finished thirty hours of postgraduate college work. There is a big difference between learning about accounting and learning to be an accountant, and a good college will do rather a better job of the first. Readers may draw their own conclusions about how it happened that in a decade in which accounting standards were pushed higher and higher, the accounting industry failed to detect some of the biggest and most brazen financial scams the world has ever seen.
The ambitions of most of these new students were of course wackily out of touch with the realities of the economy. Richard Day, writing in a recent Illinois Issues, cites a 1988 nationwide survey in which more than half of 3,000 high school seniors polled wanted to be professionals, even though less than a fifth of the available jobs are in professional fields. The postwar promise that every Illinois kid who wanted to ought to go to college was expanded in the 1970s to, "Every Illinois kid ought to go to college." Today the rule is, "Every Illinois kid needs to go to college."
"Status creep" afflicts institutions as well as individuals. In a generation our teachers colleges have become universities and our universities "research institutions." The oddity is that as their pretensions swelled, they actually got dumber and dumber. State and national spending priorities are almost precisely upside down, investing vast sums to educate a few adults in arcane skills while leaving most children unable to read or add. Having failed to provide decent training opportunities for the noncollege population, we dumped that chore into the laps of the one educational institution that could (because of its middle class political constituency) draw on public funds for support. The result was high schools at Harvard prices.
This, not its putative public affairs thrust, kept SSU in business. The future envisioned for SSU by its more thoughtful advocates has been realized instead by the University of Illinois at Chicago, which now hosts a student body of some 25,000 from around the world and which has nationally recognized faculty in several fields. But of course UIC had a big city, an eager student body, and the sponsorship of the state's flagship university to help it grow.
SSU's public affairs mandate was—and remains—full of exciting possibilities. But to its real backers, if not its founding faculty, its mandate was merely a marketing ruse. Because the prospect of a proper public university in Springfield threatened the old alma mater, the loyal sons of the Illini had a hand in the former's birth that left it a senior statewide commuter school, the most deformed child in the family of Illinois higher ed.
"Illinois public affairs university" was a PR theme, a useful reply to make to legislators who asked what it was SSU would provide that couldn't be provided elsewhere. Fatally, the more the young school tried to make good on its mandate, the more likely it was that it would offend those powerful and jealous interests who control the state's public affairs, inside and outside the General Assembly.
With no powerful alumni backing it up and with its constituency of local influentials more interested in earning than learning, SSU became careful, and carefulness became a style. The founding commitment to teaching remained strong among the better of its faculty, but as an institution the place quickly forgot that what it teaches, not the fact that it teaches, is what makes a university notable. ●