February 8, 2012

Thinking Critically About Languages

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Nearly a year after the United States Department of Education slashed funding for “critical language programs,” the federal government has indicated that it will only continue to cut funding. The University has not yet found a way to continue to fund these 11 language programs beyond a one-year provisional basis. One option the University is considering is to offer some of these languages through collaborations with other universities. This option strikes a good compromise between keeping costs low while maintaining the breadth of curriculum Cornell is known for.

As Cornell looks to solve funding issues for these 11 languages, it will implement a cost-saving strategy for several other languages. According to administrators, Cornell, Columbia and Yale will enter into a distance learning consortium, where students from these universities take certain language courses together through video conferencing starting next fall. This strategy will generate economies of scale and realize cost savings. Instead of maintaining their own costly departments to serve only a small number of students, these universities will share resources. Cornell will teach some languages on its campus, while Yale and Columbia will teach some at theirs. In a climate where the discourse is increasingly focused on the costs of tuition and affordability, continuing without this type of consolidation would be unsustainable and lead to high costs passed to students.

The University should take this strategy that will be implemented for some languages in the fall and expand it to the critical language programs. Though distance learning through video conferencing is not ideal, and maintaining face-to-face instruction is preferable, it is unrealistic to expect that the federal government will restore the funding it has cut. Now, the University has limited options if it wants to avoid eliminating these programs altogether. It can continue to fund these 11 languages, covering the costs of the cuts left by the federal government and increasing the burden on the University’s budget. Or, the University can implement cost-saving initiatives such as the distance learning option. As President Barack Obama calls on universities to make tuition more affordable to low-income students by lowering expenses, it is important that the University live up to this challenge. Higher education, as Obama said, should not be a luxury.

These cuts to critical languages are just one example of the ways in which the University must use creative methods to minimize costs while still living up to the high educational standards that students expect. Cornell’s strategy for its critical language programs strikes the right compromise between the two, and we hope that the University continues to look for cost-cutting strategies that maintain a similar balance between affordability and quality of course offerings.