The fading dream of higher education in the US

Once an engine of social mobility, higher education in the US now signifies debt and lack of opportunity.

The Occupy movement gained much support from students on campuses across the US [GALLO/GETTY]

New York, NY – It seems fitting that some of the activity inaugurated by the Occupy Wall Street movement migrated from city squares to college campuses, where students, from Berkeley to the City University of New York (CUNY), are protesting against the rising cost of their educations. Undeterred by pepper spray or police batons, they struggle to preserve the evanescent American dream of a top-flight affordable college education available to all. But, unless there are major transformations within academe and the rest of society, they may be fighting a losing battle.

Just as the frontier once allowed an enterprising individual to get ahead (or so the story went), by the middle of the 20th century, higher education had become the main engine of social mobility in the United States. A college degree, it was believed, would boost its holders into the middle class and then keep them and their children there. Recently, however, as the US economy turned sour, that promise no longer holds. Not only have rising tuitions and unmanageable student debt threatened to put a first-rate higher education out of reach for many of the 99 per cent, but it has also become harder for graduates to enter the well-paying careers they went to college for.

The economic insecurities that have blasted so many students’ hopes did not originate on campus. They stem in large part from the ascendance of a neoliberal polity that worships the corporate sector and seeks to shrink the state. Businesses pursue the bottom line by shedding jobs, while demanding lower taxes and fewer regulations. The very concept of a common good, of a system that nurtures citizenship and offers all in the US the benefits the market does not provide, has lost its meaning.

In response, higher education has also abandoned the common good. Most in the US now view it solely from a narrowly economic perspective. Vocational training has replaced the liberal arts, while administrators strive to make their campuses engines of economic growth, rather than sites for intellectual experimentation and meaningful cultural encounters. Of course, graduates need to earn a living, but they also need to have a life worth living. And adapting colleges and universities to today’s profit-driven environment imposes financial and educational costs that may simply be too high – for students, for the academy and for that elusive common good.

The current fiscal crisis only exacerbates a bad situation. Public institutions of higher learning, which educate 80 per cent of the nation’s graduate and undergraduate students, have been in trouble for years. State legislatures that once proudly funded their local colleges and universities now have cut way back. Even well-endowed private schools are feeling the pinch. As a result, the academy scrambles for every penny it can get. Administrators adopt corporate practices – patenting faculty research, licensing the logos of winning teams, building office parks on university property and, of course, raising tuitions and fees.

Higher costs, lower quality

Where one could once get a BA for free at the New York City municipal colleges, it will soon cost nearly US $7,000 a year. Nor is CUNY unique. Almost every college and university has imposed similarly steep increases in its tuition and fees. Not only that, but because they rely so heavily on student dollars, those institutions are engaged in a brutal competition for warm tuition-paying bodies.

US students struggle with cost of education

Much of that competition consists of what one observer has called an “amenities arms race”. Schools now build elaborate fitness centres, gourmet dining halls and state-of-the-art computer facilities. Others invest in faculty stars and applicants with high SAT scores to gain an edge in the all-important US News and World Report rankings. They also tailor their curricula to the demand for vocational programmes that may or may not prepare graduates for the careers that will let them repay their student loans.

Worse yet, the long-term impact of the academy’s financial crisis has not only made higher education increasingly unaffordable, but has also impaired its quality. Students and their families now pay more for an inferior product. No wonder graduation rates are low.

That situation – higher costs, lower quality – has created a weird love-hate relationship between the US public and the academy. More than ever, higher education is perceived as crucial for both national and individual success, yet its apparent inability to deliver the goods occasions considerable hand wringing, as well as demands for accountability. Most of the time, however, those who deplore the decline of the university pick the wrong targets. Instead of recognising that the same political and ideological configuration that defunded the public sector and forced schools to raise tuitions also undermines the educational experience, critics of the university blame the faculty for everything that’s wrong on the nation’s campuses.

Admittedly, professors are not angels, but they are hardly the demonised individuals the current scenario depicts. For several decades now, a concerted campaign by conservative pundits and politicians has managed to convince the public that US academics are tenured radicals who indoctrinate their students, conduct arcane research and only work 12 hours a week. Of course, the nation’s faculties do contain a few deadbeats, ideologues and careerists who brush off their classes, but most college and university teachers are responsible professionals who strive to provide the best possible education for their students – if only they had the resources to do so.

But they don’t – at least most of them don’t.

Stressed public sector

The great economic divide that has pushed so many ordinary citizens to the margins exists within the academic world as well. The top-tier public and private research universities and liberal arts colleges still provide financial security and satisfying work to their faculties, while offering their students a potentially rich educational experience – as well as entree into elite careers. That they also occasionally provide social mobility – as the ascent of the current US president via Hawaii’s best prep school, Columbia University, and Harvard Law School indicates – is the window-dressing that legitimises the myth of educational opportunity. The reality is quite different; higher education has become a highly stratified system that rewards those individuals and institutions with the resources to game it.

Within the increasingly stressed public sector, flagship universities can still replace the loss of state funding with research grants, private gifts and higher out-of-state tuitions. The less prestigious second- and third-tier public institutions and community colleges that harbour most of the nation’s undergraduates have fewer options and so are forced to perform major surgery on their core academic functions – while also raising tuitions. There is a similar polarisation within the private sector, not to mention the for-profit institutions that all too often train their students for non-existent jobs while leaving them with unpayable debts.

But elite or proletarian, all schools are cutting costs and doing so in ways that affect educational quality and create obstacles to the kind of personal attention that encourages intellectual growth – and keeps students from dropping out. Programmes are eliminated and classes are enlarged, that is, if they are not cancelled, a practice that makes it hard for students to fulfill their graduation requirements.

The most serious problem, however, is the hollowing out of the faculty through the substitution of part-time and temporary instructors for full-time tenured and tenure-track ones. At the moment, more than 70 per cent of all faculty members in US institutions of higher learning hold contingent appointments that are off the tenure track.

“At the moment, more than 70 per cent of all faculty members in US institutions of higher learning hold contingent appointments that are off the tenure track.”

The stereotypical professor with a lifetime sinecure is a dying breed on all but the nation’s most affluent campuses (and, even at those schools, graduate students or temporary instructors do much of the teaching). While they are often as gifted and well-qualified as their tenured and tenure-track colleagues, the men and (mostly) women with part-time and short-term appointments work under such unfavourable conditions that they cannot always offer a comparable education.

To begin with, they have no job security or academic freedom. They are often hired at the last minute and can be let go at any time, for any reason, or for no reason at all. In addition, they are so poorly paid – sometimes less than $2,000 a course – that they must often teach at several institutions simply to pay the rent. Moreover, unless they are represented by a union, they rarely have benefits, let alone the professional support that enables them to conduct research or publish it. Often they lack offices and must meet their students – if they have the time between commutes – in cafeterias or their own parked cars.

Faculty members not invested

Their students suffer, especially in classes such as freshman composition or remedial math where individual attention can be crucial. The lack of continuity is another drawback, one that affects students who need recommendations and discover that their favourite teachers are no longer around. And, because hiring decisions are often based on student evaluations, adjuncts and temporary instructors are under pressure not to upset their students with controversial material or give them bad grades. Such problems are especially rife at schools where administrators seek to improve graduation rates by easing up on the rigour of their programmes.

As the percentage of non-tenure-track instructors increases, traditional faculty members find themselves increasingly burdened by the administrative chores that people with contingent appointments do not handle. In many cases, those chores end up in the hands of administrators whose ranks have increased so rapidly that there are now more administrative staff members than instructional ones. That’s right, more administrators than faculty members.

And unlike earlier generations of administrators who rose from and returned to the faculty’s ranks, today’s do not necessarily have an academic background. All too often, they operate in a universe where corporate-style decision-making short-changes educational priorities. Faculty members who, after all, have made a lifetime commitment to higher education are shunted aside – especially if their fields have little connection to the market – while their business-oriented superiors follow the latest fads by adding or eliminating programs that, they hope, will save money or promote the growth of their institutions.

Such practices can lead to disaster, as the following example from a California State University campus illustrates. Several years ago, the administration decided to replace the classroom-based freshman remedial mathematics course with a computerised online programme. It dismissed the temporary instructors who had been handling the 40-person sections and put the entire course of 400 undergraduates in the hands of a single non-tenure-track faculty member. The outcome could have been predicted: whereas about 70 per cent of the students had previously passed the course, only about 45 per cent made it through the online version.

Perhaps the time has come to rethink the basic function of higher education. Vocationalising it may not work, especially in an economy where most people will change their careers several times during their lifetimes. Perhaps, we need to jettison the short-term business model and concentrate, instead, on the long haul and on restoring a commitment to the common good that will help students understand themselves and the ever-changing world they live in. Such a reform will require reinvesting in the academy’s core educational functions, but it may also be the only way to create the educated and competent citizens upon whom our faltering democratic polity depends.

Ellen Schrecker is a professor of history at Yeshiva University. Widely recognised as a leading expert on McCarthyism, she has published many books and articles on the subject including Many are the Crimes: McCarthyism in America (1998) and No Ivory Tower: McCarthyism and the Universities (1986).

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.