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August 22, 2012 6:08 PM How Did This Happen?

By Daniel Luzer

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What’s wrong with the American university today? Many people now understand that college has become dramatically more expensive than in past years, and that indebted graduates are now struggling to find jobs and having trouble paying for those expensive educations.

But it wasn’t always like that. College students have perhaps always been troublesome, but in past years they certainly weren’t so desperate.

Colleges might have created college students like this on purpose, argues Debra Leigh Scott, an adjunct professor at Temple University.

Maybe American businesses want graduates who are desperate, eager to find jobs, and willing to sacrifice anything just to pay the bills. As Scott puts it in a piece she wrote at TheHomelessAdjunct:

Let’s go back to post World War II, 1950s when the GI bill, and the affordability — and sometimes free access — to universities created an upsurge of college students across the country. This surge continued through the ’60s, when universities were the very heart of intense public discourse, passionate learning, and vocal citizen involvement in the issues of the times.

So far, so good, for students at least.

It was during this time, too, when colleges had a thriving professoriate, and when students were given access to a variety of subject areas, and the possibility of broad learning. The Liberal Arts stood at the center of a college education, and students were exposed to philosophy, anthropology, literature, history, sociology, world religions, foreign languages and cultures. Of course, something else happened, beginning in the late fifties into the sixties — the uprisings and growing numbers of citizens taking part in popular dissent — against the Vietnam War, against racism, against destruction of the environment in a growing corporatized culture, against misogyny, against homophobia. Where did much of that revolt incubate? Where did large numbers of well-educated, intellectual, and vocal people congregate? On college campuses. Who didn’t like the outcome of the 60s? The corporations… [and] those in our society who would keep us divided based on our race, our gender, our sexual orientation.

If that sounds melodramatic, let us recall the very real fear of unrest on college campuses and in cities across American during the 60s and 70s. What to do?

Well, according to Anna Victoria in Pluck Magazine:

In 1971, Lewis Powell (before assuming his post as a Supreme Court Justice) authored a memo, now known as the Powell Memorandum, and sent it to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. The title of the memo was “Attack on the American Free Enterprise System,” and in it he called on corporate America to take an increased role in shaping politics, law, and education in the United States.

How did they do that? Scott again:

How would they do that? One, by increased lobbying and pressure on legislators to change their priorities. “Funding for public universities comes from, as the term suggests, the state and federal government. Yet starting in the early 1980s, shifting state priorities forced public universities to increasingly rely on other sources of revenue. For example, in the University of Washington school system, state funding for schools decreased as a percentage of total public education budgets from 82% in 1989 to 51% in 2011.” That’s a loss of more than 1/3 of its public funding. But why this shift in priorities?

There are several theories about this. The legal requirements states have to fund things other than higher education is something about which I’ve written before. One theory, however, has to do with control. If you starve something you can control it.

If the university can no longer depend on the state for lavish, or even adequate, funding it turns to other sources, notably corporations and tuition. Scott:

To further control and dominate how the university is “used” -a flood of corporate money results in changing the value and mission of the university from a place where an educated citizenry is seen as a social good, where intellect and reasoning is developed and heightened for the value of the individual and for society, to a place of vocational training, focused on profit. Corporate culture hijacked the narrative — university was no longer attended for the development of your mind. It was where you went so you could get a “good job”. Anything not immediately and directly related to job preparation or hiring was denigrated and seen as worthless — philosophy, literature, art, history.
But despite this flood of corporate cash, the students aren’t really better off. That’s because the changing corporate culture of American colleges means that the university is more expensive. That means control too:
You make college so insanely unaffordable that only the wealthiest students from the wealthiest of families can afford to go to the school debt free. Younger people may not know that for much of the 20th Century many universities in the U.S. were free — including the CA state system — you could establish residency in six months and go to Berkeley for free, or at very low cost. When I was an undergraduate student in the mid to late 1970s, tuition at Temple University was around $700 a year. Today, tuition is nearly $15,000 a year. Tuitions have increased, using CA as an example again, over 2000% since the 1970s. 2000%! This is the most directly dangerous situation for our students: pulling them into crippling debt that will follow them to the grave.
Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer

Comments

  • bluewave on August 23, 2012 9:05 AM:

    Well yes. And no. No, because you're not adequately accounting for the time value of money. Don't use those watered down government approved inflation numbers. Just perform the though experiment of using the historical 8-8.5% increase in the Dow Jones Industrial average as the REAL change in money over time. In 1977 the Dow was at 742. Today it's around 13,100. Which isn't that far from the Temple University example. Yes, the cost of college has increased somewhat excessively, but the real problem is the wage stagnation. When the Temple grad got his diploma, his earning potential (depending on degree) probably went from the 8-10k a year he could make as a high school grad to 12-15k as a newly minted college grad, or a 30-50% increase in income. And using the same time/money approximation, today the high school grad would be making $104k a year, the college grad $216k. And you could live the middle class lives our parents lived, with stay at home moms on 104k a year, and you could pay off the college loans on $216k. Trouble is, the hs grad is lucky to make 30k and the college grad will get, maybe 40-50?

    But yes, yes, a million times yes, the whole point is to have a hunkered down citizenry in the last throes of learned helplessness, grateful for whatever crumbs are thrown their way and just praying that nothing else falls on their heads, and killing public education at all levels is a big foundation stone in that program.