The Story of College

College is on everybody’s mind, and not in a good way. With tuition and debt loads increasing at an ungodly rate, persistent arguments about the amount of learning happening on campus, and the continuing rise of massive income and wealth inequality, many are questioning public investment in higher education. To understand where we are, we have to understand where we’re coming from.

Once upon a time, college was the purview of a true elite. Universities were unambiguously in the business of educating the moneyed, particularly old money. Part of the reason for the traditional focus on virtue and citizenship in college, as opposed to vocational training, is that most college students didn’t need any. They already came from wealth. Most people were excluded either through lack of financial or social access, or through conspiracy, such as how Jews were deliberately excluded for decades. Jerome Karabell’s The Chosen details this period in exacting detail.

Things changed after World War II, albeit unequally and in pieces. The Servicemen’s Readjustment Act of 1944, typically called the GI Bill, introduced a set of subsidies designed to assist the millions of soldiers returning to the United States in their transition, including extensive tuition remission. Flush with post-war growth, the United States could afford to subsidize college in this way while simultaneously undertaking massive infrastructural projects like building the interstate highway system and continued electrification. Within 12 years of its passing, some 2.2 million soldiers had used GI bill funds, according to Keith W. Olson. African Americans and women, however, did not share in this opportunity at the same rate.

Meanwhile, workers without a college diploma could continue to find middle class wages in fields such as manufacturing. This was the period identified by Thomas Piketty as a historically anomalous period of wealth convergence, caused by the destruction of property in Europe, the massive stimulus of the war effort and corresponding wage growth, and unionism. In the three decades following World War II, the bottom 90% controlled an unprecedentedly high percentage of income. Robust wage growth for uneducated labor combined with an increasing percentage of educated labor to help create a national expectation of ever-rising standard of living for the average Joe — provided Joe was white.

In the 1960s, with the United States still enjoying economic stability and growth that was the envy of much of the world, a series of social transformations was changing the face of American success. A protracted battle against Jim Crow and similar types of structural racial prejudice and inequality resulted in the passage of the most powerful Civil Rights legislation in history, partially removing systematic obstacles to higher education access for people of color. In particular, desegregation of public schools helped black students compete for admission slots with white students, while forced desegregation of college campuses enabled students to attend colleges that had always excluded them. Black enrollment soared. These young black students took the energy and ideals of the Civil Rights era into the classroom with them. With large numbers of young people who were more inclined towards political radicalism, during a progressive countercultural movement, with the organizing possibilities of those without full-time jobs, colleges developed a reputation as incubators of left-wing politics.

Concurrently, the federal government continued to invest heavily in universities, in part out of fears of falling behind the Soviets. A commission of the Eisenhower administration, for example, claimed that “America would be heedless if she closed her eyes to the dramatic strides being taken by the Soviet Union in post-high school education.” Federal spending on universities expanded by almost $3 billion dollars from 1956 to 1966. The Higher Education Act of 1965 made need-based federal financial aid available to all students for the first time. Flush with cash and straining to accomodate more and more students, the higher education system opened more and more colleges.

Trouble was on the way. The 1970s saw the rise of “stagflation,” or the combination of rising inflation (and thus declining per-dollar purchasing power) and slowing economic growth, along with higher unemployment. The causes of this period are complex and contested, but the consequences are clear. Driven by elite anger over the declining relative value of their wealth, and riding a backlash spurred by the significant social changes of the 1950s and 1960s, conservatives began a series of political victories that would transform American politics for decades to come. As documented in Rick Perlstein’s Before the Storm, in 1964 Barry Goldwater’s defeat was so devastating that the New York Times declared “He has wrecked his party for a long time to come and is not even likely to control the wreckage.” By the off-year election two years on, conservative Republicans took control of Congress and 10 conservative governors were elected. One of them was a charming ex-actor named Ronald Reagan.

The Reagan revolution produced many changes on college campuses, none of them good. Reagan’s A Nation at Risk report argued that American education was falling far behind international peers, contributing to a crisis narrative about higher education that has never subsided since. (A report from Sandia Labs refuted most of its findings, but that report was marginalized by the George H.W. Bush presidential campaign.) The small-government conservatism that Reagan and his gubernatorial colleagues championed threatened the public investment in higher education that had been a hallmark of the post-war boom period. According to the American Council on Education, state support for public higher education declined precipitously from 1980 to 2011, with only two states maintaining their 1980 level of fiscal investment in public universities. Counter-intuitively, as Paul F. Campos has argued, total public expenditures on higher education have grown. How and why?

The Reagan-Thatcher revolutions functioned in large part to crush labor and send jobs overseas, which accelerated inequality, and neoliberal Democrats like Bill Clinton continued the trend. Globalization led to massive offshoring of jobs that paid a middle class wage without a college degree — the fabled “factory at the edge of town” jobs that allowed many uneducated Americans to raise their children in better standards than they were raised. Meanwhile, unions took a massive hit, with unionized manufacturing jobs declining precipitously. We still “make things in this country,” but manufacturing employment has declined to a vast degree. This is a partial cause of a society-altering drop in wages for those with only a high school diploma.

The already-healthy college wage premium grew. Increasingly, the “good life” required a college degree, thanks to both the deliberate suppression of uneducated labor wages and increased productivity for college graduates. Not coincidentally, the largest jumps in college enrollment occurred as wages for uneducated labor declined, with increases of 11% from 1991 to 2001 and of 32% from 2001 to 2011. What’s more, these increases were disproportionately fed by increasing participation by black and Hispanic students. Since these populations are more likely to be poor than the traditional white college population, they can be expected to place greater burdens on the federal Pell Grant system.

At the same time, labor force participation declined, as the value of taking low wage work was reduced relative to the overall economy. This was particularly true of men, and even more of young uneducated black men. These structural economic forces, not vague cultural morals, fed overall declines in the standard of living for black America, and indirectly contributed to welfare reform and the Drug War, which were spurred in part by white establishment anger towards young black and Hispanic men who had been shut out of wage growth.

Stagnant real wages and spiraling inequality combined with American preconceptions about the good life to create a massive debt crisis. A huge portion of wealth and income gains accrued to the wealthiest, leaving almost nothing for a majority of wage earners. With real wages stagnant for a significant portion of the American population, but the drive for material signifiers like expensive diplomas, houses, and goods only accelerating, a massive debt bubble grew. The subprime mortgage market ballooned, causing financial institutions to outlay credit that they could not possibly cover and that their borrowers could not possibly pay back. Credit card debt and medical debt grew as well. Americans increasingly were living lives their actual incomes could not support.

Meanwhile, the cost of college soared. While tuition increases are frequently overstated due to failure to account for differences in sticker price and net price, there is little question that the increase in tuition has been structurally unsustainable and morally indefensible. In the 2000s, state funding of colleges declined while enrollments grew, and colleges spent exorbitant sums on administrative growth and expensive facilities. With colleges desperate to attract ever-more-competitive students, and students perceived to care more about expensive amenities and programs than actual education, institutions spent lavishly on seemingly everything but instruction. While building incredibly expensive dorms, gyms, and dining halls, and stuffing campus with Assistant Vice Deans and Associate Provosts and Program Coordinators, universities undertook a massive de-professionalization of actual college instruction, leaving more and more teaching in the hands of overworked, at-risk graduate students and adjuncts.

All of this came to a head in the Great Recession. With the housing bubble finally burst, financial institutions found themselves unable to meet their basic fiduciary obligations. Credit lines froze. Mass layoffs forced hundreds of thousands of white collar workers onto the unemployment rolls. Construction and related fields saw vast joblessness. And no one suffered as badly as those just emerging from college. Competing against thousands of desperate workers with more experience, young graduates emerged with thousands of dollars of debt, no jobs, and no hope. This led to widespread and eminently-justified anger towards colleges and universities, who had dramatically raised tuition for students who now felt they had little to show for it. The college wage premium remained robust — in fact, according to many analyses, it actually increased — but this was cold comfort to young graduates with huge debt payments and no jobs. Additionally, these young graduates were naturally unable to buy houses and cars and otherwise fuel the economy, further slowing growth. Conservative state governments reacted with austerity budgets that slashed spending, slowed growth, caused huge human hardship, and deepened the slide, as the lack of government spending caused further job loss and corresponding failures of economic growth.


Additionally, the long-term trends of declining uneducated labor wages meant that more and more students who would have traditionally been excluded from college education attended school. This meant that students who lacked prerequisite skills were increasingly attending college, further straining the adjuncts and other at-risk labor who taught them. While increasing access to college is a moral and economic priority, the reduction in traditional gatekeeping functions of admission standards has left colleges with more and more difficult-to-educate students, resulting in high dropout rates that attracts yet-more criticism of higher ed. This has resulted in the growth of remediation efforts to help these students — a noble effort that frequently doesn’t work. This deepens the costs crisis on college campuses, particularly those campuses that enroll the most at-risk students. Metrics for two-year colleges, which attract students from nontraditional backgrounds in far higher percentages than their four-year peers, are far worse than those of selective four-year institutions. This leads in turn to a nascent higher education assessment movement, with pressure coming down from on top for colleges to demonstrate their “value added” to students with standardized metrics — metrics that will likely be developed by for-profit entities looking to squeeze dollars out of public and student funds.

Arguments began to proliferate that college wasn’t worth it — at precisely the time that women began to dominate men on college campuses. Though inequalities persist in fields like physics or engineering, in the past several decades women have gone from underrepresented in both bachelors and masters degrees to significantly outpacing men. This is likely a contributing factor to the declining (but still large) wage gap between men and women. They have emerged as academic leaders, however, in a cultural moment where they are more and more likely to be told that their degree is not important, demonstrating the ways in which goal posts move over time for disadvantaged demographic groups.

We are left with a situation in which institutions that were originally created to perpetuate the reign of an inherited, moneyed elite, and to train that elite to be civic leaders, are now facing the burden of incredible expectations. We expect our colleges, at this point, to essentially create a healthy labor market. With the demise of the middle class uneducated lifestyle, thanks to deliberate policy choices to crush unions and globalize labor markets, colleges are now expected to train an ever-growing population of students adequately to ensure them good jobs. Meanwhile, the madcap race to compete in the Resort-Hotel-Plus-Classes vision of higher education has resulted in an increasing reliance on exploited adjunct labor, the demise of the professoriate, the rise of sky-high tuitions and attendant debt loads, and more and more deserved public scrutiny.

In other words, America’s conservative, corporatist turn has led to declining per-capita state funding for universities thanks to austerity politics, the demise of unions as upwards pressure on wages, a shredded social safety net for those who struggle, and spiraling inequality that sees more and more of the economic pie eaten by a tiny elite. College still makes sense for graduates, as they continue to enjoy significant premiums in wages and unemployment over those without college educations. But the race to credentialize puts enormous pressure on high school students to attend the most selective institutions, erodes the value of the bachelor’s degree itself and compels many to pursue graduate degrees in law or business or medicine, and perhaps even perpetuates inequality rather than reducing it. After all, even with all of the expansion, only about 40% of working Americans has a college degree. It is unclear if the economic advantage they enjoy will survive with further expansion, given that skilled labor is subject to basic forces of supply and demand.

We’re left in a situation where everyone agrees that something has gone badly wrong, but no one is quite sure what alternatives to pursue. Many, such as myself, believe that too many people are being pushed into colleges where they are unlikely to succeed, but there is little in the way of alternative plans for mass prosperity. Arguments to increase the number of students attending trade schools are intuitively satisfying but lack evidentiary support. Arguments for sending more and more students into STEM fields are directly contradicted by available evidence. Arguments for mass online education cannot provide evidence that such systems can actually provide a quality education, particularly for the most at-risk students, and omit the social and networking functions that are an important aspect of college success. Average people can’t afford the rising cost of college thanks to enormous income inequality and stagnant wages, but neither can they afford not to go to school.

Colleges and universities deserve harsh criticism and badly need reform. The rise in administrative and amenity spending is suicidal; the use of exploited labor, unconscionable. Tuition rates must continue to slow, as they recently have. But ultimately, the problem is with our economy writ large. The pressures that colleges are under stem from the demise of broadly-shared prosperity. Without returning a substantial portion of the income growth for the top 10%, 5%, and 1% to the median American, there is likely no alternative to mass debt and economic stagnation. Proposals for free tuition and broad student loan forgiveness are a good start. But ultimately, our problems with higher education can only be solved through redistributive economic reform.