Accessing Academia

Posted on November 13, 2020

Image of diploma with red ribbon and graduation cap

In part, higher education is earned. It takes effort and resources (time and money). Those of us who’ve completed at least an undergraduate degree likely can reflect back on long nights and tired mornings getting through the readings, writings, and other assignments to receive our passing grades.

In part, higher education is a privilege. It takes resources that not everyone has, and depending on the school, there can be acceptance requirements and other hurdles that many despite their hard work and best efforts cannot reasonably reach.

This post covers this latter part, six ways in which academia is unfortunately out of reach to many people within and without our profession, and what are small ways that we as local government professionals can do something about it.

A more socially just society requires more access to education.

Barrier 1: Cost

As mentioned it’s about time and money. It’s stress and effort. It’s often other specific skills, knowledge, and qualifications that are required beyond public high school education. The student loan crisis is proof that many couldn’t afford it who didn’t realize it as 17-year-olds putting trust in the all-too-eager college recruiter and slick brochure with vague promises of success.

A generous training budget. A scholarship program. Some sort of IGA, MOU, a program with schools to help pave a path for residents who couldn’t get to college otherwise… we have both the money in our budgets and our political power to leverage on a local level.

Barrier 2: Elusiveness

If a scholar submits a study or essay into a dense, obscure journal… does it make a sound? Vetted, scholarly information is elusive for many of us outside an academic institution. Often times some of the most relevant information to projects and programs for our communities are overlooked for what’s more visible.

Agreements with the local library district or school can help bridge the gap, even purchasing access to academic databases for internal use can help. More than this though, we can work to encourage our colleagues in academia to make their work public, to push against the trend of keeping work within academic circles.

Barrier 3: White Male Saturation

One of the classes I’m currently taking is “Foundations and Theories in Graduate Humanities”, a core class. Although there is an effort to bring in a diversity of viewpoints such as articles on Civil Disobedience (i.e. Ghandi) and Feminism (i.e. bell hooks), there is still a majority of predominately white, male authors that stand on a pedestal from Freud, to Marx, to Foucault, to Kafka, and several others. Women and minorities have fewer sources, fewer authors being included that offer relatable works with a shared experience.

As local governments, we can work to not put certain traditional viewpoints on a pedestal, can create reading lists for employees, and even the community-at-large on equally good work accomplished by leaders of different backgrounds. We can also try to incorporate those perspectives into our own policies and assumptions we work under.

Barrier 4: Readability

A lot of academia is not readable for the majority of us. It’s bogged down by technical jargon, uncommon word choices, and references that assume we’ve read several other books and/or articles. This isn’t even to mention how dense the “methodology” section usually is where applicable. Even if the work is physically within reach, mentally it is not.

We can translate. As an example, much of this series is taking dense reading and filtering it down into readable blog posts. Where we come across valuable, yet difficult reading we can take the initiative to translate it for our colleagues, elected representatives, and residents when we’re able to.

Barrier 5: Applicability

As far as I can tell, the purpose of a “thesis” is to make a paper easier to grade. Giving my Council a “strong statement of my opinion” on the onset of any memo or analysis I create would not go over well as it’s them, not me, meant to make a decision. Same with APA, Chicago, and MLA formats, all visually unappealing and unusable for any organization with any marketing standards. Theory vs. practice is its own can-of-worms.

We can change the format. We can make it more aesthetically pleasing, easier to engage with, and can turn theory into practice with our programs and projects.

Barrier 6: Hierarchy

The last barrier I see is more within academia. Getting a Ph.D. seems to be a long, painful process, much of it that might not be necessary. Academics are expected to churn out article after article to “stay relevant”. Earning tenure relies on outdated policies and traditions. It keeps many great people from succeeding in academia, which in turn denies us their potential.

I don’t have an answer, a solution to this one other than to offer my empathy to professionals in academia. My advice to local governments is to avoid the same pitfalls.


I feel my own pursuit of a second graduate degree was the right decision. There’s a lot I’ve learned, new doors have opened, it’s overall been a rewarding experience. I want the same for others, for more people to have access to academia who currently do not.

This guest blog is by ELGL member Matt Hirschinger, the Assistant to the Town Manager in Hudson, Colorado. Read all of Matt’s other blogs at the Social Justice –> Government homepage.

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