The lovely painting above was the work of Samuel Morse, inventor (yes, Morse Code), artist, and professor. The building on the left is the original New York University building on Washington Square (alas, torn down in the late 1800s), where Morse had his faculty office. In the painting, he placed the Gothic structure in a classical landscape to suggest the idea of the university as paradise.
It’s an image that I find incredibly seductive, one of places of learning, wisdom, and reflection.
But hold on, the university as paradise??? As I begin my 23rd year of teaching in a university setting, I can only wish that was so. Instead, a more accurate depiction of the higher education landscape today might be found in The Scream by Edvard Munch:
By Edvard Munch (1893)
Simply put, American higher education faces crises at all levels over costs, curriculum, and opportunities for graduates. The Great Recession and other factors may have pushed colleges and universities off the cliff, but it’s also fair to say that the schools themselves had a lot to do with marching themselves to the edge.
How did we get here?
Looking back over the past 30 or so years, there is plenty of blame to go around for this state of affairs. Here’s my quick read on things:
- Financial aid policy shift — Starting in the early 1980s, we saw a steady reversal in financial aid policy, with loans at high interest rates supplanting grants as the primary need-based form of financial aid. This was a big piece of America’s conservative political and policy shift.
- Free labor, a/k/a unpaid internships — Heavier student loan burdens have been accompanied by a new expectation that students and recent graduates first prove their worth to employers by undertaking internships, many of which are unpaid. Today, it is not unusual to see enterprising undergraduates with four, five, or six unpaid gigs on their resumes.
- U.S. News rankings — The controlling influence of the U.S. News & World Report rankings of colleges, universities, and graduate programs has fueled an Edifice Complex, causing schools to build fancier dorms and student unions with the latest high-tech bells & whistles to attract students with the highest grades and test scores. At all but the richest schools, these costs are mostly passed back to the students through higher tuition and fees.
- Faculty and administration — At many colleges, faculty compensation has remained somewhat flat, and full-time tenured slots have been replaced by low-paid, part-time positions. However, at schools attempting to lift their rankings, teaching loads have been lightened to allow for more scholarship, resulting in less instructional time. In addition, lavish pay for so-called “star” faculty, the addition of layers of administrators, and the retention of scads of consultants have contributed significantly to rising personnel-related costs.
- Recession — The Great Recession has wreaked havoc on the entry level job market for new graduates, thus reducing a degree’s ever-important “return on investment,” a phrase we seem to hear ceaselessly these days. In appears that this job market will be a difficult one for the foreseeable future, and it will cause many to rethink the value and purpose of college.
In other words, it has been a perfect storm of mostly negative developments.
Not a cheery assessment
I’m not exactly a ray of sunshine, am I?!
I could go all soggy on you and share good memories of college and even (gasp) law school that are prompted by the beginning of a school year and the early signs of fall weather. And, in fact, I count myself among the fortunate beneficiaries of the post-Second World War, middle class ideal of sending the kids off to college, right before tuition started going out of control.
But that era is gone. We’re going in reverse, and the next decade will be a very rocky time for higher education and most of its denizens. There is no uniform set of responses, as the challenges and possibilities will vary widely from school to school. However, money will be a factor pretty much across the board.
Sadly, it also means that in the emerging “return on investment” era, we’ll be emphasizing short term outcomes rather than long term benefits of a college degree. Who has time for philosophy, history, or literature when the debt collector is calling?
Consequently, it’s quite possible that our graduates will be impoverished in another way. While they may be more savvy about their careers, they may have to forgo opportunities to think about what kind of lives they want and their places in the world. How unfortunate it is that these latter contemplations may be regarded as luxuries, but our debt-driven marketplace doesn’t have much room for such indulgences.
Note: Obviously distance learning is a piece of this picture as well. However, while replacing the residential college experience with distance learning programs largely due to costs is an unfortunate possibility (at least for students with fewer financial resources), I believe this mode of instruction serves a very useful purpose. Perhaps I’ll write a more extensive piece on that later.