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Ivory Tower

June 22, 2014
Ivory Tower

I’ve looked at college from both sides now: from up and down, and still somehow it’s college’s illusion I recall. It’s a powerful one, stronger even than the idea that home ownership as a stand-in for the “American dream”. And like the housing market, higher education is heading for a crash. Andrew Rossi’s documentary Ivory Tower stands as a solid primer on where we stand now, and it hints at what may soon come of our educational Babel.

I bought into the illusion of higher education longer than most, in part because it served me well for so long. But then, I was an extraordinary student; with my insatiable thirst for a broad spectrum of knowledge, I slept through half of my undergraduate coursework and sailed on into a doctoral program at an Ivy League university. I don’t say this to brag; even my own talents came largely from growing up the child of two graduates of land-grant universities, in a house where the quality of my education was highly valued. And the biggest extraordinary fact of my college experience was even less my doing: as the child of a full professor at one college in the University System of Maryland, the state picked up the full tuition bill for their flagship school.

I was told the same story of higher education we all were, in the same hushed and reverent tones. And then it was handed to me, leaving me among the lucky few who won’t be holding the bag. But it also becomes easier for me to question the value of what I’ve been given without feeling like I have to justify an enormous cost I was convinced to pay for it. So I’d like to sketch a bit of a story, which will hopefully contain at least some morally truth, about how we got here.

College used to be the realm of the elites, where only the children of privilege went. Gradually, through the nineteenth century, some people came to believe it was beneficial to provide wider access to education. This was true both at the elementary and secondary levels — leading to universal public schools — and at post-secondary levels. Industrialists like Leland Stanford, Andrew Carnegie, and Peter Cooper endowed schools, and the Morrill Acts expanded state-funded universities across the country. But attendance was still out of reach of the majority of Americans until the G.I. Bill granted a college education as a reward for military service.

I don’t mean to demean the talents of those who first took advantage of the G.I. Bill, but as more and more Americans listed college degrees on their résumés, employers started requiring it, even for positions that didn’t really need one. The bachelor’s degree came to stand as a status marker more than as a signifier of any particular knowledge or skill. And as more jobs required college, those who didn’t have any were left behind.

At the same time, colleges felt the pressure to admit more of the students who now needed that diploma. This drove the expense of educating these students up, of course, but with more demand came more supply, and colleges felt a need to compete to get more and better students, particularly ones who could pay their own way, possibly with student loans. By now, many schools are engaged in an infrastructural arms race to build more and better amenities having nothing to do with education. And where there’s money there comes rent-seeking behavior; administration sizes have ballooned, and their compensations have grown far more than faculties’ have.

The need to keep feeding in more and more students — now viewed as customers of a business — also provides an incentive for standards to drop. Students who would once have been turned away were now welcomed. And if the colleges would pick up the slack, why should secondary schools hold up their standards? American public high school students now famously test below those of most other industrialized nations. Yes, we send more of our children to (expensive) higher education than the rest of the world, but the quality of that education has fallen off dramatically.

Viewing higher education as a business also leads to subsidizing “party school” atmospheres. The children of privilege — the ones for whom college was once reserved — who can afford to party their way through an out-of-state school without much academic effort are now the most lucrative kind of students. It would be insane to believe that they and their money are not pandered to. Elizabeth Armstrong and Laura Hamilton have described this new form of class-stratification extensively in their book, Paying for the Party.

But even if you can’t pay your own way, we’ve still set up our society in such a way that you need that degree, and we’ve made it as easy as possible for you to borrow your way there. Student loan companies — primarily “Sallie Mae” — will gladly lend almost any amount to cover a college education. Their own risk is negligible; unlike home mortgages, student loans cannot be discharged in bankruptcy, and as soon as you leave college they can start compounding what you owe exponentially. We allow them to market these usurious terms to kids who, almost by definition, are not prepared to understand the future consequences, and then we tell those kids that they have no choice but to sign on the dotted line or be relegated to a life at the margins.

And once these students are on the hook, headed through college towards a job market that may not give them enough to pay back their loans even if they do graduate, many of them — if not most — have no idea what they want to get from college besides the diploma. It doesn’t matter so much for the kids on the party track, but a student without clear goals is likely digging themselves into tens if not hundreds of thousands of dollars of debt without a good reason why.

There are a few other models on the American landscape. Students at Deep Springs College, for example, develop a foundational sense of purpose in their small ranch community before most of them head on to more traditional schools. New York City’s Cooper Union was founded to provide free higher education to its students, and some of the most gripping segments of Ivory Tower concern the student revolt at its 2013 decision to begin charging tuition.

The most radical proposals are those to move away from the institutional model of higher education altogether. More information than ever is available for free online, and traditional schools like Harvard and MIT are even beginning to produce much of it in partnership with Massive Open Online Course providers like Coursera and Udacity. PayPal founder Peter Thiel has even offered fellowships to students who voluntarily drop out of college to start new businesses.

But these “uncolleging” proposals founder on one key point: students need to work to work them. MOOCs and self-directed learning are great for students who are motivated to learn on their own, but they fail to offer proper support to those who need it the most. Personal interaction with a knowledgable and engaged professor — even an adjunct, the migrant worker of the academic world — can make all the difference when it comes to motivating and contextualizing material for most students. Thiel himself admits he’s aiming his fellowships at those students who would thrive with or without a college environment.

I’m probably one of those students myself. I drove my own education through high school and much of my undergraduate study, and have operated as an autodidact since leaving academia. I went to college knowing exactly what I wanted to get from it, and I made sure I got that, including the interactions I needed with my professors. But what worked for me is not a valid basis for educational policy covering the entire country.

And so we come back to where we started: some students are rich enough that they can more or less buy their college diploma; some students have strong enough goals and self-motivation that they can probably teach themselves, though the college environment might well help them; the vast majority don’t really know what they want yet, and we’re advising them into debt-slavery as a way to find out. This is clearly not a sustainable strategy, and it seems that the linch-pin is the fact that most of the better jobs in our society require an exorbitant white elephant. This pin must go; if we don’t carefully remove it, it will soon break under the strain.

The higher education system as we know it will not survive the change either way. It lives on a bubble of sub-prime student loans larger than the housing crisis that caused the financial crisis of 2007–08. We must lay a firmer secondary-school foundation. We must provide more and better opportunities for high school graduates who have all the skills that are truly necessary for many white-collar jobs. We must begin to once again view an educated population as a public good, worthy of public investment, and provide that education to all students who feel a need for it. The demand for a college education will decline, and many schools will shrink — if not close up shop entirely — as the firehose of cheap money shuts off.

Better secondary schools will provide the skills that high school graduates will need for entry-level white-collar jobs. And expanding those opportunities will remove the meaningless pressure to obtain a diploma just for the sake of a status marker. Students will feel a need for higher education when they have something they want to get out of it, at which time they will have the necessary motivation to make their time in college worthwhile. This is hardly a new idea; Robert Pirsig outlined exactly the same program forty years ago as he explored the metaphysics of Quality in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.

If we don’t proceed with this careful restructuring, though, the results could be much worse. Sooner or later, the trillions of dollars of student loan debt will exceed our ability to repay. Eventually we will default. The money will dry up anyway, once a loan doesn’t come with a reasonable assurance that it will be repaid, and we will have at least a generation of workers denied entry to a job market because they can’t afford to buy their way in.

College has been sold to us as the single best road to prosperity. Statistically, it may be true; for now college graduates’ median lifetime earnings are twice those of high school graduates. But for more and more people it’s become a moneymaking racket instead of the instrument for social improvement that Morrill and the industrialists and the framers of the G.I. Bill envisioned.

Some very serious cracks have developed in this ivory tower, and building more lopsided additions instead of repairing the foundations is just going to bring it down that much sooner. Anyone who doesn’t see that really doesn’t know college at all.

Worth It: yes.
Bechdel Test: if it applies to documentaries, fail.

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