meet and three

Return on investment: Education

An accountant, an administrator and an artist discuss the value of a well balanced education

USC Times sat down to lunch with Leslie Brunelli, vice president for finance and chief financial officer, Jennifer Clyburn Reed, director for the Center for the Education and Equity of African American Students and co-director of the Apple Core Initiative, and Marius Valdes, an artist and graphic design professor. The following edited version of the discussion also appeared in the Fall 2018 Issue No. 2 of USC TImes.

If we think about college in nutritional terms — and really, why wouldn’t we? — we’d encourage a well-balanced diet. With the On Your Time initiative, that could mean a hearty five-course meal in the fall and the spring, or several smaller, equally nutritious meals spread out over the entire year. But it’s also important to try new things, as our guests this time explained, citing personal experience. We are what we eat, after all, and tasting something different can alter your life forever.

Let’s start with a quote from President Harris Pastides’ State of the University address from just last week: “A decade from now our university must be more affordable, while not compromising great outcomes for our students … Ten years from now taking five and six years to get a college degree will be perceived as educational malpractice.” How do we guarantee a well-rounded education while also streamlining the path to graduation so our graduates don’t drown in debt?

Marius Valdes: I have an interesting take on that, I think. The design program when I came here was a five-year program. What we’ve seen since the recession is that students can’t see being in school for five years. So literally just last week, we turned in curriculum revisions that shorten our program. The downside is that design is a very structured, sequential curriculum — courses build on each other. Now, classes will be more self-contained so that students can technically get it all done in four years. I think it’s a detriment to the overall quality of the program, but in fairness, I don’t disagree with it. Students want to get out and start working. That fifth year of college might just have to become their first year on the job.

Jennifer Clyburn Reed: Graduating with a massive amount of debt is especially detrimental in the teaching profession. With salaries the way they are, it can take 10-plus years of aggressive payment to eliminate that debt. The Apple Core Initiative offers a $3,000 scholarship to help offset costs for teacher candidates who may go into the areas where we need them the most, which are also the areas that pay the least. We’ve also created multiple paths to matriculate through the education major. We have all four years planned out — including study abroad — but we’ve made it flexible. Students who change their major or concentration need to be able to do that without slowing down.

Do we run the risk of students rushing through, and then they find themselves in the wrong career? If they have to come back, it takes even longer.

JCR: My sister figured that out second semester, senior year — after student teaching. That’s why I think we need a restructuring of the entire program, so they’re getting teaching experience from the very beginning and can see if it’s something they really, truly want to do. Now, I went through four years as a political science major, thinking I wanted to go to law school. But my sorority started a tutoring center in Hendley Homes, and a fourth-grader told me after he passed his first multiplication test all year, “Didn’t you say you want to be a lawyer?” I said, “Yes! I’m going to law school in a couple months!” He said, “You shouldn’t do that. You’d be a better a teacher.”

You took a path you didn’t expect. Really, all three of you did.

Leslie Brunelli: I was a philosophy major.

MV: I was originally psychology. I was almost a philosophy major — that was my favorite class freshman year. Then my adviser told me I needed something “easy” on my schedule, so I took a drawing class. Studio art classes can be three times as long as other classes, but I never minded. I would sit for hours just drawing. I was terrible compared to my classmates, but I didn’t care. That was the moment when I thought, “Oh man, I’ve gotta tell my parents I’m gonna change majors to art!” My dad was an engineer, and I thought he was going to kill me, but he said, “Do what you like, and you’ll do well.” That was all I needed. It meant an extra year of school because all of my credits didn’t count, but then I did an internship and that sealed it.

None of you majored in the quote-unquote “lucrative” fields. Marius, you’ve heard the “starving artist” jokes. And Leslie, philosophy —

LB: I was actually an English major first, but only for a couple of weeks. I came here to go to the Honors College, and my very first class was with Jim Stiver. It was a logic class, and I quickly realized that logic made sense to me. Logic and philosophy are the rules and parameters of what I do now. Math is the accounting side. Excel can do the math. Knowing the rules is what’s most important in finance, knowing how the balance sheet has to look, what has to tie, what has to foot. Sometimes I’ll get a funny look when someone finds out I have a degree in a philosophy — “And you’re responsible for our billion-dollar budget?” [laughs] — but accounting is all about building a logical argument. That’s the skill. And I did get a master’s in business, too.

MV: This may be the place to ask, “Is college the new high school?” I have students who want to go straight from undergrad to grad school, and I generally tell them, “Don’t do it. Go find out what you like, but also what you don’t like.” I think all of us are good examples of that — college was the start, but it led somewhere we didn’t expect.

JCR: But then you run the risk of not being able to provide for a family for a number of years. I do see what you mean in terms of how college is structured versus how high school is structured. Maybe, though, we need to rethink how high school is structured. If we start there, when they get here maybe they’ll be ready to start down a career path.

LB: I have to agree. The state has chosen not to sufficiently fund higher education, and, unfortunately, I don’t see it changing. I don’t see our General Assembly supporting the notion of college as the new high school. Their thought process is, “We paid once [for K-12], we’re not paying again.” They certainly don’t pay for it now. They do invest a little more aggressively in technical colleges — because their mindset right now is about job readiness.

They have their definition for return on investment.

LB: That’s right. But I think that particular definition is shortsighted. Technical colleges are very important, especially in South Carolina, but when we focus only on today’s jobs we miss the opportunity to look for next year’s job, what the jobs will be in 10 years, 20 years. Ten years ago, we weren’t talking about social media. Now it’s a whole career path.

And you can’t really build a major around the career that doesn’t exist yet. You have to build the student so that the student has flexible skills.

MV: Going back to the recession, if that’s OK — that was when I really started to realize just how much the university is a business. If an art class is two hours long and you only have 20 students, you start to worry about the biology class that’s an hour long and has 400 students. They make a lot more money for the university than we do.


LB: Well, it’s not just the recession that demands that. There’s a huge debate right now around the country about the value of higher education — is it worth it? Enrollment will start declining nationally, even if just because the birthrate won’t support it. Plus, if the legislature doesn’t support higher education, at some point in the next 10 years a public institution will close — not a flagship, but a public institution of some size will close. It’s going to happen.

While certainly the recession exposed a lot of this, our world is changing. The current higher education business model won’t work in the future. You can’t raise tuition much more, the state won’t step up — now what?

Meanwhile, how do you explain to students or their parents that, yes, you can major in art and get a job, you can become a teacher and not regret it?

MV: I’ve done that a lot. Fortunately, someone has written a book! [laughter] So if a parent or a student asks me, “What can my child do with this degree?” I give them a breakdown. You could design environmental stuff, you could do logos, web design, etc., etc. My argument is always, “Design is the foundation of everything.” And I’m in a little bit different place than the people in studio arts. Ultimately, in design, we work for clients. Parents and students recognize that it’s practical. When you graduate you understand how to work with someone else.

And teaching?

JCR: We’re the profession that makes all others. If a parent tells me they don’t want their child to go into teaching, I have to ask, “Why?” They give excuses about the money, about how hard teachers work, and it’s true, it’s not glamorous. But the benefits outweigh all the negatives. Seeing a student from 20 years ago tell you all the great things in their life — I spent 25 years in the classroom, elementary school and middle school, before transitioning to the College of Education at USC, and I wouldn’t trade it for anything.

We’ve touched on the idea of experiential learning. Do we invest enough in extracurriculars, in beyond the classroom education?

JCR: Being able to experience what you think you want to do as early as possible is critical.

MV: I agree. The more experience we can offer, the better. We have a visiting artists series in the School of Visual Arts. I tell my students, go to this event and write a one-page paper. I’m not grading it as a paper. I want them to go because sometimes one talk can change your life. You come out thinking, “Wow, I never thought about doing that.” Or, “That guy’s just like me, and look what he’s doing!”

LB: That’s what makes the university community so unique. Working here, we see that every day — even as an adult I can still avail myself to those opportunities. That’s one thing for our students to understand, that it doesn’t end when you graduate.

I think our value, too, is in general education. It’s so important to take the anthropology class, or the sociology class, the class that you know nothing about.

We’ve mostly been talking about careers and finding personal happiness, but you can invest in something more than just self-enrichment. Do we place enough emphasis on that greater good, beyond the individual?  I’m talking about society in general, not just at USC.

MV: This drives me nuts. There was a recent issue of TIME magazine with essays by teachers from all over the country, and all of them said basically the same thing — “I love what I do, but I have to spend my own money in the classroom,” and “I’m so busy doing this and that I can’t focus on what I’m there to do.” It just seems like a crime to me.

Building a great society just isn’t something we value, it seems. Same thing with hospitals. I’ve spent a lot of time lately in the hospital with my mom, and I see these nurses — how hard they work, how tough their job is. If we’re talking about that kind of investment, I think we need to invest more.

JCR: Compensation is helpful, but that is really not why teachers go into the profession. We go into it to affect every other profession, and the people that go into those professions. These children are going to be society. They will eventually teach our grandchildren, they will take care of us in the hospital.

So, I think of what I’m doing now as investing in my future. I want to retire comfortably, I want to die with dignity and in comfort, and all of these little people that I am impacting now will have a hand in that. And if not for me, for others.

MV: But I don’t want to see teachers penalized. I feel like a lot of time in order to do their job right, or to do their job well, they have to invest their own money. They’re told that it was their choice to become a teacher, so that’s just what they have to do.

JCR: We hear that a lot — “You chose this profession.” My question back is, “What if I hadn’t?”

Considering everything we’ve discussed, do each of you feel that you’ve gotten sufficient return on your own investment in higher ed? And beyond that, how do you quantify or qualify that return?

JCR: If I hadn’t gone through four years of political science and joined my sorority, which allowed me to become a tutor in a housing project, I would not have this career. I don’t think I would have been happy as an attorney. I really don’t. And now, I enjoy everything about my career — and it is a career. I don’t think I would have had that with any other job.

LB: I was fortunate. I was on a full scholarship, and then I worked at Colonial Life, and they paid for my grad school, so I never incurred any debt. But aside from the monetary aspect, my life would have been so different had I not come to the university.

I was a first-generation college student. My father was career military, and then he worked here at the university in facilities, so being a student here, everything was new to me. Everything. My mother didn’t know how to drive. My grandmother didn’t understand why I was going to college because where she came from, women just didn’t do that. If I hadn’t come to the university, my life would have been entirely different.

MV: I will say I hate paying a student loan every month, but I like what Jennifer said: I don’t feel like I have a job, I have a career. I’ve found a place in design where I never expected to be. I don’t think I would have found that if I hadn’t left home and gone to school. And when I went back to grad school a lot of my friends were like, “Why put yourself in debt?” But for me it’s paid for itself. It’s allowed me so many more opportunities than just bouncing around from design firm to design firm. So, yes. The answer is yes. 

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