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Isn’t It Time To Bring The State Back In? Thoughts On The Recent Pew Report On Higher Ed

May 26, 2011, 1:16 pm

If you have a Google alert on “college,” as I do, you will know that the last week has been filled with pundits weighing in on the question of whether college is a worthwhile investment.  This is because, on May 16, the Pew Center released a new report called  “Is Higher Education Worth It?  College Presidents, Public Assess Value, Quality and Mission of Higher Education.” Highlight: although every feature of the report addresses the wreckage that privatization and cutting public education budgets has created over the last two decades, the report never suggests that getting the government back into the business of funding higher education would be a good start to solving any of these problems.

Now, although I always find what the Pew Center has to say interesting, as a researcher my first question about the study is this.  Putting aside the fact that there could be no demographics more narrow than “college presidents,” or as imprecise as “the public,” why was neither group asked what seems to be the most pertinent questions, which are: “Why do you think that the government stopped subsidizing higher education? Stopped taxing the wealthy, and corporations? Why did the government decide to shove the costs of becoming an educated citizenry onto a public that is, itself, being shoved into lower paying jobs so that corporations can make even larger profits that they will not be taxed on?” Another, and perhaps more scientifically framed, question that neither group was asked was:  “Do you think a robust, excellent and inclusive system of higher education serves a greater social and economic good, the benefits of which extend beyond the individual earner?  Would you agree to higher taxes for the wealthy so that your children could gain access to a quality college education at a low cost?”

I find this absence fascinating, since everyone in higher education, particularly college presidents, knows that these are the relevant questions.  The failure to ask them has, therefore, provoked a storm of pertinent but pointless articles about whether higher ed is worth it at all, and if it is, should entering first-year students head straight for the B.A. that has the greatest net worth, immediately and over time.  What are those degrees?  If you guessed “anything engineering!” you win; if you guessed “Petroleum engineer!” give yourself a gold star.  (It doesn’t look like we are going green anytime soon.) 

The report is also full of intriguing nuggets that someone should follow up on.  For example,

A majority of Americans (57%) say the higher education system in the United States fails to provide students with good value for the money they and their families spend. An even larger majority—75%—says college is too expensive for most Americans to afford. At the same time, however, an overwhelming majority of college graduates—86%—say that college has been a good investment for them personally.

This same group believes that they make more money ($20K a year) because of their college degree and, conversely, that taking out the loans to pay for it has limited their life choices:

A record share of students are leaving college with a substantial debt burden, and among those who do, about half (48%) say that paying off that debt made it harder to pay other bills; a quarter say it has made it harder to buy a home (25%); and about a quarter say it has had an impact on their career choices (24%).

The landscape of higher education seems similar to Frederick Jackson Turner’s 1893 lament about the closing of the American frontier.  People seem to believe in college, but it isn’t within the grasp of those who actually might attend.

Nearly every parent surveyed (94%) says they expect their child to attend college, but even as college enrollments have reached record levels, most young adults in this country still do not attend a four-year college. The main barrier is financial. Among adults ages 18 to 34 who are not in school and do not have a bachelor’s degree, two-thirds say a major reason for not continuing their education is the need to support a family. Also, 57% say they would prefer to work and make money; and 48% say they can’t afford to go to college.

The college presidents were asked almost no questions about money, although their view of what a college education was “worth” expressed a whole set of values that you could predict (it’s priceless!)  But the two parts of the survey simply don’t mesh.  If students overwhelmingly say they don’t go on to college because of finances, college presidents overwhelmingly say that college students are ill prepared to make use of college.  There is a complex study in there, in and of itself:  do part of that 48% actually know they are so ill-prepared for success in college that they don’t consider it a worthwhile risk?  Conversely, are many of those students who appear to be ill-prepared simply working too much to attend to their studies?

This latter question strikes me as quite urgent, particularly since it is perceived as a phenomenon largely confined to public schools and community colleges.  This is where it has its largest impact.  But it is also the case that I have been aware, in my almost twenty years at Zenith, that a large number of students who are poor work several jobs, not just to pay their own bills but to send money home to their families.   Indeed, paychecks from college jobs that are often packaged in as part of financial aid often go straight to family members.  Many of these students eat less, sleep less, and have less time to study. 

Now, no one asked the college presidents why they thought students were less well-prepared, and what they would do about it if they could.  No one seems to have linked lack of preparation either to escalating poverty or the funneling of education dollars into the pockets of testing companies, constant drilling to the test, and talented teachers fleeing the profession because of how badly they are treated by school systems, much of which has happened as a result of No Child Left Behind (2001) and its subsequent iterations under the Obama administration.

This is the curious thing about this report is that it dances around policy questions, but doesn’t ask a single one directly, or name a single policy that has shaped the higher education landscape.  “The public” is asked to confine its thoughts to individual success; “college presidents” are asked to ruminate on the mission of college.  But the two are never articulated as part of the same system, or as having a mutual set of interests that are social and organically intertwined.  And this, I would argue, is because neoliberal government policies, and right-wing political demagoguery, have sold the ideology of “low taxes” and “small government” so successfully that the moral commitment of the state to nurture an educated citizenry has entirely evaporated from the equation.

If “college presidents” and the Pew Foundation don’t understand that, why wouldn’t “the public” be confused about the present and future state of higher education?

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