How Much Higher, Education?

The academy lives. Image via Pixabay.com

I grew up in a household where college attendance was a non-negotiable. I and my two older siblings were given to understand that after high school, four years of college would follow, and after that what we did was up to us. I was the youngest so the pattern had already been established. I vaguely remember attending my sister’s graduation from Howard University in the early 70's. It was my first visit to Washington, DC. The ceremony seemed long and I wondered how on earth we would ever find my sister again among all those graduates wearing the same colored robes.

My brother and I are five years apart so he graduated from college a year before I finished high school. Still don’t recall much about his ceremony, but I do remember thinking that some of his friends were pretty good looking. Since attending college was a given and I was enthusiastic about school, I started early with my college ambitions. At some point in eighth grade I dug into my brother’s college guides and began selecting schools that met my specific criteria: They had to offer a maximum number of foreign languages and a major in international relations. The list that emerged included all the Ivies and a handful of other prestigious institutions.

It seems surprising to me now but I absolutely followed through with that planned course of action: I got into my first choice ivy league school, concentrated in IR and studied French, Russian and German during my undergraduate years. How nice.

When I think about my parents and their intentions, I believe my siblings and I were able to make them proud in many ways, not only by meeting their standards for academic achievement. In many families, the expectation of college entry and completion is a given, so our family’s story may not be remarkable. It has never felt remarkable per se. However, with age and experience and children of my own, I wonder more about what their commitment to higher education meant for us as a family and how it translates in my life now.

Ours was an African-American family, and my mother earned her bachelor’s degree at the Tennessee State and my father completed his associate degree at Case Western Reserve in Cleveland. They believed firmly in the value and importance of education. Our house was swimming in reading materials- newspapers, magazines, books — piled high in the basement and distributed more evenly in the living room. My maternal grandfather who died well before I was born was a Divinity scholar who wrote his sermons in Greek. A lineage of academic fervor was therefore present in our household.

When I read about higher education today I am struck by several things: its relative expense, the increasingly corporate orientation of many institutions, and a narrow mindedness about its purpose in society.

When we speak of the value of higher education, the primary rhetoric in schools, homes, and the media insist on the economic value. Most often we see a table or a graph showing us that a person who earns a bachelor’s degree will earn X% more than a high school graduate over a lifetime. So our message to young people is simply: go to college and get your degree or else you will have no real chance of economic success for the rest of your life. We may say many other things to students throughout their years of school, but before they leave they certainly get the message for their future that ultimately it’s less about who they become and much more about what and how much they can make. It’s the same logic which insists that schools at all levels are essentially in place to supply the economy with a functional workforce — not necessarily to build an informed and active citizenry. I have to agree with Melanie Fullick at University Affairs who writes:

… there’s a reason students are preoccupied with employment; not only has there been a recession, but this is the message being sent about higher education, from governments, high school guidance counsellors, and universities themselves. For good or ill, education is framed in terms of its economic value not just for individuals, but also for cities and for nations; and if you’re told “no degree, no job” then the “choice” is clear. This was not the kind of situation faced by students in the 1960s, who also didn’t face the same costs for their education.

If we understand higher education as a market in which we find supply and demand, growth and decline, winners and losers, we can begin to appreciate that many institutions represent and offer branded prestige and credibility above all else. Which is ultimately what sells. It’s what students and their families are there for: to get the degree that will prove its (economic)value in the mid and long term. In order to do that students and their families take on huge loads of debt to finance this long-term investment. The average level of debt for the graduating class of 2015 is just over $35,000.

What it means: These trends are not without consequence. More student debt reshapes the way recent graduates perceive everything from what kind of job they should seek out to whether they should invest in a house. The prospect of a life of repayment will make graduates more hesitant about more expensive lines of specialized study. It makes people less inclined to take less lucrative jobs that they may be more passionate about or consider better for society. It makes people less able to make major investments, like buying a home, that are central to the economy’s health. — Zeeshan Aleen

The institutions vary greatly in their financial positioning. Some of our colleges and universities are pure money magnets growing wealthier by the day, while some more recent for-profit ventures have been forced to close their doors or scale back their offerings. Colleges and universities now must do the competitive dance of economic growth like everyone else in a capitalist society, even if many are officially non-profit organizations. Hiring more adjunct rather than tenure track faculty has become one significant means of reducing costs in colleges and universities across the country. The effects are difficult to measure. On the one hand, it threatens the quality of instruction because part-time faculty often need to work two or more jobs to make ends meet, they lack job security and access to benefits. Under those circumstances, even the most caring and conscientious of professors will hardly be able to meet all students’ needs (or their own, for that matter) well, either in class or outside. On the other hand, it makes the pursuit of an academic career a far more precarious venture than work in several other fields. Sarah Kenzdior, writing on her own experience points out:

While low-wage workers without college degrees are told to get an education, adjuncts are asked what they thought all that education would get them. The plight of the adjunct shows one can have all the education in the world and still have no place in it. — See more at: https://chroniclevitae.com/news/762-the-adjunct-crisis-is-everyone-s-problem?utm_content=bufferd8711&utm_medium=social&utm_source=twitter.com&utm_campaign=buffer#sthash.tStDJLe5.dpuf

In light of crushing student debt, a remarkably narrow value proposition and a steady devaluing of academic labor, who still thinks higher education sounds like a good deal? And for whom? Anne Loreto, an NYU undergraduate writes in her breathtakingly candid post about the true costs of higher education captures this far better than I ever could:

The question is: if an educated citizenry creates businesses, jobs, a more informed electorate, and might even make us happier, why are we forcing college students to surrender everything in their possession to attain that public good?…The way things are structured, those in power are counting on lower income students to fail. If we give up on completing our degree or are forced to work in environments that don’t utilize our education so we can begin to pay off debts, we maintain the status quo and aren’t a threat to the One Percent.

Given the current state of higher education, would my parents still be as insistent that my siblings and I pursue the path straight to and through college?

I wonder. And I’ll never have an answer to that particular question.

Here’s what also I wonder: how do we — as parents and educators — insure that we provide our young people with the resources, structures, institutions and support that they require to create futures for themselves which will prove more sustainable than what we are handing over?

The academy is not dead, nor is it dying. It has serious limitations, perhaps by design. Higher education is still one of society’s great sorting machines. Based on the soaring costs and questionable return on investment especially for low and middle-income students, it is clear that it may be in the interest of some (the 1%) to keep that sorting mechanism in place. What I appreciate so much in Anne Loreto’s piece is her call to arms: “We don’t need to challenge the staus quo, we need to shatter it.”

I like to envision education generally as a societal trust — a commitment we make as a society to improve ourselves for the greater good. Even as we pursue our individual aims and dreams, there is still plenty of space to contribute to something larger than the ‘cult of me’. So I want to offer an alternative view here of what pockets of higher education might become. For one, I believe that new forms of higher education may become smaller, more flexible organizations which work with content specialists (both with and without PhDs) in unique ways: offering academic apprenticeships in their field of practice, for instance, or recruiting groups of students interested in a specific area to develop a course of study. This group could then identify potential content and process advisers with whom members agree on an acceptable form and level of compensation. This would mean breaking up traditional hierarchies and potentially reconfiguring teaching and research assignments both within and outside institutions.

I can fathom more community-based solutions in which free access to courses, both on-site and online, is further supported with completion incentives created in partnership with local businesses and organizations. Meanwhile, in the traditional academy, after the tuition bubble has bust (as it surely one day must), the gap year will become a new norm. Fresh high school graduates will have options to work in community service projects dedicated to health care, education, environmental conservation, grassroots organizing, or animal care, for instance. For room and board and a stipend, young people could gather experience in and exposure to the work world while also contributing to some of society’s high need areas. By the time most enter college, the majority of students may be older (19–25) and have had some work experience prior to starting college and find classmates of a much wider age range on campus.

The eight semester/four year model may give way to shorter, more intense courses of study or module patterns with built-in gaps during which students are free to pursue work or study options before returning to full or part-time course work. Alumni communities may take up roles in creating centers of learning in their own regions with support from their alma mater. And imagine what might be possible if rather than becoming certification factories as some suggest would be a positive and cost-effective trend for higher education, new learning organizations took their cues from society’s needs (i.e., poverty relief, affordable child care in low income areas, infrastructure sustainability…) to create paths of study which seek to respond to those needs through social entrepreneurship and small scale pilot projects.

That’s my form of crazy talk out loud. As much as I have prized my own experiences in the academy, I am not sure that I could or would do it over again the same way. I hope that our family legacy of academic fervor lives on in my children and grandchildren and that they shape and create the learning structures that best meet their evolving needs and aims.

In my dreams my children and grandchildren will not go to college; they will give birth to one.

I do believe that the future of higher education can be brighter than the picture that is currently emerging. When we dare to understand higher education as a vehicle of improvement, as a choice that students make to develop themselves in ways that extend beyond the purely economic, we place ourselves firmly among the hopeful.

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