College daze: Ideals and realities

By Samuel Morse (1835-36)

By Samuel Morse (1835-36)

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)

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.

14 responses

  1. Your insights are most helpful, David, particularly your comments about faculty pay.

    I see things a little differently. The devaluing of college degrees might push more bright, motivated young people into the trades and small business. Given the opportunities for self-study offered by the Internet, we might just see the emergence of a generation who think more independently and less selfishly than the bloodsucking MBAs and (sorry) corporate lawyers that have been your beloved universities’ hideous output since the 1980’s.

    • Marcia, we probably agree more than disagree on some of the points underlying your comment, but you’re making some erroneous assumptions about the plans and destinations of most college students. Most significantly (at least in response to your comment), only a small percentage of MBAs and lawyers will find jobs with large corporations, including the types of entities that fueled the current economic disaster. And once you get outside the small circle of elite business and law schools, that share drops considerably. (Most lawyers, for example, represent individuals and small businesses.) So I think it’s unfair to label untold numbers of college graduates as “hideous output.”

      That said, your point about trades and small business development is well-taken, but here, too, I don’t see any reason why training in these realms cannot be combined with a solid college experience. Rather, the main issue as I see it is how to corral the out-of-control costs and reductions in financial aid that have constricted options for those without means.

      • David, thanks for your thoughtful reply.

        I’m afraid that I don’t see the value of a college education these days, regardless of cost.

        In my view, critical thinking and appreciation for the arts need to be taught starting around fourth grade, along with hard skills like computer programming. College is way, way, way too late.

        In my limited view, education after grade 8 should be focused on vocational training, giving students ample time to decide where their interests and talents lie.

        I treasure my degree, but only because it was an otherwise useless ticket that let me make a decent living. I kept no friendships or real interests made during college, but acquired them later. Maybe I’m the exception, though, and others find college and graduate school enriching and worthwhile in their own right. I hope so, if only to ensure that you stay employed so you can continue to work for workplace justice!

  2. As a July 1, 2013 I am a retiree of a secondary technical education system in CT. During this time in my career as a School Counseling Department Head, I have spent many, many years, months, days and hours feeling like and depicting “The Scream”. It was just impossible to deal with unrealistic administration and parents who insisted that higher education was the only option for the graduates. The students were well prepared to enter the world of work in various technical fields where they would be able to experience career and financial success along with the opportunity to become responsible members of their communities. For so many educators and parents higher education was the only option upon graduation. They failed to recognize the many challenges, educational opportunities and successes to be encountered in the world of work.

    • Thank you, Linda, for affirming my belief in the value of technical education (perhaps you missed my comments, above, that support your own experience).

      As for those who value the “world of work in technical fields”: I’ll bet that your technical education system treated its own blue collar and semi-skilled employees a good deal better than do many of the so-called progressive universities in highfalutin land.

  3. I can relate to this post. I was the beneficiary of grants, scholarships, and financial aid, all of which made it possible for me to attend college. Without that education, I would never have been able to work in my field of interest. More importantly, I probably would never have had the opportunity to rise above the economic class I was born into. When poor students cannot afford college, they are at a serious disadvantage in the working world, which will only serve to widen the gap between the rich and the poor.

    A friend of mine, from outside the US, stated that their schools offered both academic training and vocational training. All students were required to learn a trade – even the students planning to go to college. Why? To give them something to fall back on if they didn’t get accepted into college, if the economy was bad, etc. That seemed like a balanced approach – vocational training for people who wanted it and training for college-bound students who might someday need it.

    • Same here, I am the only person in my family with a college degree. I put myself through school by working full time, hence it took me several years to finish. I value my education but I’m not better off for it, yet.

      My cousins on the other hand, live back east and attended vocational-track high schools. Both of them learned a trade without going to college and are doing well. Here in CA, college is touted as the be all and end all for getting a good career. Well, not everyone is cut out for college or will even benefit from a university degree. Vocational training should be offered as a viable alternative and not be treated as the inferior choice.

  4. I agree that vocational training should not be tagged as an inferior choice, but there’s no reason why training in skilled trades should be incompatible with exposure to, even immersion in, the kind of liberal arts education that can be gained in a good college experience.

    Indeed, many of the populist adult education efforts in the U.S. and Britain during the last century, including the Great Books movement, were fueled by demand from those who didn’t have the opportunity to go to college and regretted that self-perceived gap in their own learning and education.

    Some of the emerging colleges and universities of the late 19th and early 20th century offered programs in skilled trades. It’s too bad we don’t have more of that crossover today. I’ll try to comment further on this in a future post.

    • One big difference between college and the trades is that competence is more easily measured in the trades and less likely to be affected by personal bias. There is an awful lot of subjectivity in the awarding of grades in the liberal arts, whereas in the hard sciences and the trades, the difference between competent and incompetent is pretty clear – regardless of how the student looks or their personality.

      The other big difference is that in the trades, you don’t have to be a child of a corrupt Wall Streeter to afford an education.

      I’m afraid that the “stars in your eyes” era of valuing higher education for its own sake is over. Rather, it’s become another way, as has been observed by others here, to maintain this country’s ever-growing class divide.

      • Marcia, stars in my eyes or not, if we don’t address the serious issues of access and affordability in higher education, then we can turn off even more of the lights on the future of this country. Fortunately, we haven’t reached the point where everyone in college must be the offspring of a “corrupt Wall Streeter,” but if we give up on reform, I think you’ll get your wish. As for opposing study in the liberal arts because of supposed rampant grading bias, perhaps you’ll be pleased over how much evaluation at all levels, including liberal arts instruction, has been reduced to multiple choice and true-false tests, though I don’t share the sentiment.

      • Excuse me, “my wish”? That higher education be limited to the corrupt and the lucky? That liberal arts be eliminated because of faculty biases and preferences? Hardly, David. And you’re right, I’m glad to learn that in evaluating student performance, objective measures have replaced prejudices based on race, gender and even size (see today’s article in the New York Times on Harvard Business School).

      • Marcia, points taken, but you seem to be using this post & thread as a vessel for all of your issues and displeasure with higher education and those in it.

        May I suggest an alternative? I know that you have strong feelings about this and many other issues, so why not start your own blog as a platform for them? It’s free, it’s easy (at least on WordPress — believe me, if I can do it…), and once you learn the basics, it requires only the amount of care & feeding you choose to devote to it. You can invite your friends and acquaintances to be among your initial readers as you build a following.

      • Marcia, I was unaware of your blog, so I tried to offer a constructive suggestion based on the tenor of your comments in this thread and elsewhere on this one. As for your last comment, thanks, but I think I’ll just opt not to play.

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