The Crushing Contradictions of the American University
Our blind faith in the transformative power of Higher Ed is slipping. What now?
Appeared in The Chronicle of Higher Education, April 22, 2021
A beautifully written & wide-ranging article on the evolution of American Higher Education since the post-war 1950s.
Some highlights shared, below:
- Starting with Clark Kerr's (1st Chancellor of the University of California, Berkeley) "The University in a Progressive Society" speech there was the belief in the individually and socially transformative power of colleges and universities to reduce inequality and ensure unending economic growth.
- Between 1950 and 1970, Kerr’s belief in higher education was buoyed by research on the correlation between educational attainment and life “outcomes” as measured by prospective employment and earnings.
- The Servicemen’s Readjustment Act of 1944 (the GI Bill); creation of the National Science Foundation in 1950 as well as several new institutes for the National Institutes of Health, and with them increased research dollars; and 1965 Higher Education Act (increased federal support for universities & loan-interest loans for students) led to Higher Ed's "Golden Age".
- The concept of the "sovereign student consumer" comes into vogue in the late 1960s and early 1970s saw a shift of the university into a system that leveraged faith in higher education to create markets for student credit and debt.
- Perhaps no moment was as seminal as the University of California, Berkeley charging tuition (first called an "educational fee") to California residents for the first time in 1970.
- As we all know, now students a families consistently take on massive amounts of debt to "invest" in their potential by attending college, a practice increasingly called into question.
They [university leaders] leveraged public belief in the progressive promises of higher education into a debt-fueled, acquisitive, speculative system whose primary purpose is to maintain itself.
American higher education has produced many goods. But it also launders privilege, luck of birth and circumstance, and financial and social greed into socially acceptable status under the rubric of merit. And it now exacerbates persistent and worsening financial and social inequalities.
Takeaways from the article:
We must re-envision higher education for the 21st Century not as the sole path to earning a decent wage but as an institution that develops critical thinkers and problems solvers ready to make society better. And we must make higher education more accessible to those who can benefit from it potentially with permanent online offerings to democratize the sharing of knowledge and skills. We also must, however, ensure that obtaining a college degree is not the only path to a financially stable and viable life.
Is support coming?
Just last night (4/28), President Biden unveiled his American Families Plan which seeks, among other things, to improve educational access and opportunity. While this is currently just a proposal, it speaks to an apparent commitment by US leadership to re-invigorate the American Dream of opportunity for all. Stay tuned for updates...
For more reading:
The Corruption of the College Dream Machine (Chronicle Review)
The University Run Amok!
- Higher education's insatiable appetite for doing more will be its undoing
Educational Adequacy in the Twenty-First Century
- From The Century Foundation