Collegiate and Cultural Crossroads

For a long time the mantra has been, “Go to college if you want to improve your life prospects,” but that idea has lately come under fire, given the increasing cost of attendance and the crushing debt burden many students have to shoulder as they walk out the door. As a concept and an ideal, college attendance is still of great value, but that value has been undermined by two primary characteristics: government disinvestment in education in general and an increasingly careerist emphasis that shears away another critical aspect of a complete education, one that enables young men and women to develop an awareness of their place in the world in order to make independent decisions about their role in it.

The soaring costs of college attendance are no secret. In the 1990s, private colleges were worried about breaking the $30K “ceiling” that they worried would trigger a consumer revolt. It didn’t happen, and 25 years later, the most expensive colleges cost at least twice that amount. At the same time, state university systems, historically designed to provide low cost, high quality educations to their citizens, have been throttled by state legislatures, forcing the institutions to cut programs, raise tuitions and fees, and abandon the idealistic notion of higher education for all. California’s system, once a model of access, is now a shambles.

The failure of states to financially support their institutions has also forced them to rely more on corporate and commercial money to keep themselves going, eroding the idea that universities are bastions of dispassionate and disinterested inquiry. Departments are under pressure to develop money-making ideas and patentable concepts; various “studies” are underwritten by drug companies and other industries that have a vested interest in the outcome. 

In order to maximize the utility of college attendance, students and their families must think more than ever before about the “results” of a college education. Faced with mounting costs, increasing debt, and dismal job prospects, the pressure mounts for college to be more preprofessional than “educational” in the largest sense. There’s no time to waste on “non-productive” courses or majors, no need for “navel gazing” about the meaning of life or the arc of history. You’ve got to get in and get out and get to work.

It’s hard to see all this and not think about the increasing privatization of public resources, the growing distance between the 1% and the rest of us, and the truly chilling division of Americans into “makers” and “takers” that dominates the Neanderthal, er, Republican, Party (never mind its actual hostility to science, reason, and rationality). The American system of education, from elementary school on up, is being manipulated in such a way that it is becoming the plaything of plutocrats and corporations who seem bent on producing, not well-educated citizens, but compliant workers too busy trying to pay off their non-dischargeable college loans to question the status quo.

As having a BA or its equivalent becomes even more necessary for today’s jobs, it becomes harder to get one. “Elite” private institutions, as expensive as they may be, can provide financial aid; those in the middle or lower tiers find it harder to do so. Public institutions, starved for funds, have to charge more to their in-state students while also trying to enroll more out-of-state students who pay a premium to attend. (The University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana charges in-state students $12,036 per year and out-of-state students $26,662.) In-state students get squeezed as a result. 

High income families can handle the charges; middle and lower income families can’t. A once-robust government supported system that benefits society at large has been offloaded onto individuals, and only those with the wherewithal to afford it can take advantage. Colleges and universities have become increasingly like gated communities with their own security forces, leading to a further splintering of a sense of common endeavor that links members of an educated populace. As Harvard brags about its 94.1% rejection rate, let’s imagine that all those applicants are really trying to find some kind of safety for themselves behind the ivied walls in order to escape the great unwashed attending “lesser” institutions.

The narrowing of focus and the increased corporate funding of college education also strip away an essential quality of true education: the ability to see beyond one’s own immediate life, question it, and consider alternative ways of being. Even if one has a solid and compelling career focus in college, it is important for the continued health of the nation to have individuals able to understand the context of their lives and communities, the whys of social and cultural norms, the workings of economic and political systems, and the representative and interpretative possibilities of art and literature. This list is by no means comprehensive, but is meant to put meat on the bare bones definition of a college education as just a way to get ahead. 

Early on, many American colleges were intended to educate “indigent young men of piety,” as my own alma mater held. How they became bastions of privilege is a long and fascinating story, with land grant institutions established to democratize educational attainment as older schools became more difficult to enter and more likely to educate the non-indigent, not-only-men, and impious. 

If these trends continue we may be left not only with whole generations of debt-laden students scrabbling to find jobs, but also isolates who don’t have the time or inclination to care about anyone else and who don’t see that our continued existence as a society depends on our ability to consider what is best for all of us, not just ourselves. If our higher education system (never mind for now our impoverished K-12 system) can’t maintain the connection between individual attainment and social responsibility, what will?