An Anti-College Backlash?

>Americans are finally starting to ask: "Is all this higher education really necessary?"

Since the appearance in The Atlantic of my essay "In The Basement of the Ivory Tower" (2008), in which I questioned the wisdom of sending seemingly everyone in the United States through the rigors of higher education, it's become increasingly apparent to me that I'm far from the only one with these misgivings. Indeed, to my surprise, I've discovered that rather than a lone crank, I'm a voice in a growing movement.

Also see:
In the Basement of the Ivory Tower: The idea that a university education is for everyone is a destructive myth. An instructor at a "college of last resort" explains why.

The Truth About Harvard: It may be hard to get into Harvard, but it's easy to get out without learning much of enduring value at all. A recent graduate's report. By Ross Douthat

What Does College Teach? It's time to put an end to "faith-based" acceptance of higher education's quality. By Richard H. Hersh

I hadn't expected my essay, inspired by the frustrations of teaching students unprepared for the rigors of college-level work, to attract much notice. But the volume and vehemence of the feedback the piece generated was overwhelming. It drew more visitors than almost any other article on the Atlantic's web site in 2008, and provoked an avalanche of letters to the editor. It even started turning up in the syllabi of college writing classes, and on the agendas of educational conferences.

In the months and years since then - and especially now, as I prepare to add to the critical tumult with a book expanding on that original article - I find myself noticing similar sentiments elsewhere. Is it merely a matter of my becoming so immersed in the subject that I'm seeing it everywhere? I don't think so. Start paying attention, and it becomes readily apparent that more and more Americans today are skeptical about the benefits of college.

"Some Say Bypassing a Higher Education Is Smarter Than Paying for a Degree," reads a recent headline in The Washington Post. (The article, which addresses everything from higher education's outsize price tag to its questionable correlation with career success, garnered more than 4,000 Facebook recommendations on the Post's web site.) And just last month, the Harvard Graduate School of Education published a study suggesting that (gasp!) four-year college is perhaps not for everyone. Rather, for a growing proportion of students, the report contends, internships, apprenticeships, and vocational training would be far more beneficial.

Even for the academically inclined, the value of college in this economic climate is increasingly subject to question. "Is Going to an Elite College Worth The Cost?," asked New York Times reporter Jacques Steinberg in December. He surveyed economic studies, perused labor reports, and interviewed economists and sociologists to ascertain whether there's really a significant payoff for choosing a swanky private college over someplace less glamorous. The answer?  Inconclusive. Parents, of course, obsess over the Ivy League admissions game, carefully studying up on how to give their kids an edge. And U.S. News & World Report's annual college breakdown gets as much publicity these days as the Oscar nominations. But are those students fortunate enough to gain admission really getting an education worthy of the fuss? Reports of rampant grade inflation at many of these schools throws even a straight-A transcript from a prestigious university into question. (Some colleges, including Princeton, have taken to imposing limits on how many A's instructors can award in any course, while the University of North Carolina has resorted to including median class grades on students' transcripts so as to make it more readily apparent which A's were earned in easy courses.) And a new book by Andrew Hacker and Claudia Dreifus, Higher Education?: How Colleges Are Wasting Our Money and Failing Our Kids, makes the case that students at elite colleges are being left to fend for themselves while their impressively credentialed professors take constant sabbaticals and leave the actual teaching to inexperienced assistants.

Also see:
What's Wrong With the American University System: An interview with Andrew Hacker, the author of Higher Education?

Yet despite the mounting skepticism about the value of a college degree, and in the face of the economic downturn, colleges continue to demand ever higher fees, saddling graduates with crushing debt along with their diplomas. In June of last year the Federal Reserve released new figures showing that the nation's total student loan debt now sits at about $830 billion - for the first time surpassing the nation's credit card debt. Student loan debt, it should be noted, is in many respects less forgiving than credit card debt: "These loans typically can't be discharged in bankruptcy," explains the Wall Street Journal. "They have different repayment terms, some of which have heavy consequences for borrowers who miss payments." Some commentators have even suggested that the crimp the financial downturn is putting on students' ability to get loans may in fact be doing those students a favor. In a piece titled, "Huge Debt Incurred for College Tuition Just Doesn't Make the Grade," syndicated financial columnist Michelle Singletary writes, "I'll be honest. I think if college students and their parents have a harder time getting loans, that's a good thing. Perhaps now more people will stop and consider the long-term implications of taking on so much of this so-called good debt."

Adding to the anti-academic backlash is the fact that at a time when most businesses are contracting, colleges are growing inexorably, swallowing up residential neighborhoods in ways that alienate the towns and cities that host them. NYU's ongoing expansion, for example, has angered many, leading some to dub it the "2031 Plan to Take Over the World." (A June 2010 Bloomberg article, titled "New York University Assails Greenwich Village," derides the university's recent spate of building as an "overbearing onslaught.")

And at the other end of Manhattan, Nick Sprayregen, the owner of several self-storage facilities in West Harlem has been making headlines with his battle to prevent his properties from eminent domain seizure for a planned Columbia University expansion. (Sprayregen was ultimately denied a hearing by the Supreme Court, but a New York appellate court ruled in 2009 that Columbia had inappropriately colluded with the state in its effort to take his land. "The record overwhelmingly establishes," the judge wrote, "that the true beneficiary of the scheme to redevelop Manhattanville is not the community that is supposedly blighted, but rather Columbia University, a private elite education institution.") Meanwhile, in Massachusetts, Harvard is regularly lambasted these days for having bought up large swaths of land in working class neighborhoods across the Charles River, then failed to build as promised, leaving vacant lots and gaping, rat-infested holes in the ground.

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Since when have colleges become so controversial? They used to embody humankind at its most elevated; now, they're just another institution to be wary of.

I attended college in the 1970s, when higher education wasn't newsworthy. When you went away to college, you really went away. I checked into a sylvan campus far away from everything, signed up for a meal plan, submerged myself in the library stacks, and essentially disappeared. Society took little note of academia's somnolent doings because there was little to take note of. Student activism on any significant scale was moribund. The Vietnam War was over.

Colleges were viewed, in the main, as a hiatus from the real world. In my cinderblock dormitory, I watched no television and read no newspapers. We went to see few current movies--it wasn't all that easy to get oneself off campus and to a theater, even for the likes of Woody Allen and Jill Clayburgh and Burt Reynolds--but we did dig revivals, Duck Soup and Flying Down to Rio and Sunset Boulevard. We seemed to dwell more in the dusty, monochromatic past than the present, even when we weren't reading Chaucer and Tacitus. I spent four leisurely years imbibing great books and ideas. I could write a good literature paper--it seemed one of the few things I was suited to do--so a degree in English was my destiny. In those days, college was a lot cheaper, so I didn't rack up much debt. I knew my degree wouldn't get me a job, but no one had promised that it would. It wasn't as though the college was hoodwinking me. My pursuit was rather solipsistic and no doubt shortsighted but harmless--a solitary pastime, like collecting penguin figurines or breeding orchids.

Twenty years later, I found myself teaching part-time at a small private college, and I was struck by the extent to which the institution had changed. College wasn't the old place of retreat and meditation that I remembered--a place to quietly condition one's mind with four years of intellectual crunches and sets and reps. It no longer seemed that intellectual a place at all. Now it was a place where students accumulated credits to advance at their jobs. College was very much part of the workaday world. All kinds of people attended because, if they wanted a bigger paycheck, they had no choice in the matter. The rolls had expanded dramatically, which seemed initially like a good thing. But I was teaching many students who weren't prepared to do even high school work. I was expected to coax critically reasoned research papers from students who possessed no life of the mind at all: young and not-so-young men and women who didn't read and thought not a whit about ideas.

The task was impossible. I couldn't shake the sense that the college simply wanted to enroll as many students as possible - and that colleges in general had become more focused on the bottom line than in my day. The system had ended up expanding in ways that industry always expands: by jacking up prices, putting money into public relations, and broadening the customer base by marketing even to customers dubiously served by the product.

If my informal observations about the tenor of our national discourse are accurate, however, many of those customers are finally starting to ask some tough questions - chief among them: Is all this higher education really necessary?

And while the colleges do claim to instill critical thinking skills, these days, I'm not sure they're thrilled to be the focus of so much critical thought.