Are American colleges supposed to prepare future citizens for civically engaged adulthood? Or is their job to provide student consumers a market-driven good so they’re capable of becoming productive participants in the economy?
That’s the framing of a debate about the future of higher education in the new film Starving the Beast, which explores both the view—generally proffered by liberals and schools that rely on taxpayer support—that higher education in the U.S. is a public good to be supported by society, and the counter narrative—backed by conservative think tanks and policy wonks—that it is a cost to be shouldered primarily by individual degree-earners and private entities (who will presumably benefit in the long run).
“This is one of the nation’s most important and least understood fights,” says the narrator, Brian Ramos, toward the film’s beginning.
Steve Mims, the director and an adjunct lecturer at the University of Texas at Austin—one of the schools featured in the film—pretty clearly comes down on the public-good side of things. But he said in a phone interview that he mostly wants the documentary to raise awareness that a debate is happening at all.
During conversations with professors and university officials at schools in Texas, Wisconsin, North Carolina, Louisiana, and Virginia, Mims said he discovered that people were familiar with local efforts to reform public college systems, but less aware that similar efforts were happening elsewhere at the same time. In other words, they had no context, no frame of reference. “We met all kinds of people who had no idea that anything was happening beyond their school,” he said.