Crisis or Priceless?

Daniel Bonevac

Is American higher education in crisis? Yes, Goldie Blumenstyk answers, and she provides extensive statistics to confirm it. Blumenstyk, a Chronicle of Higher Education reporter and editor since 1988, paints a balanced, carefully textured, and ultimately troubling portrait of higher education in the United States.

American Higher Education in Crisis? What Everyone Needs to Know offers a comprehensive overview of American higher education as a whole. Nearly twenty million Americans are enrolled at U.S. institutions of higher education. Just under 40 percent attend four-year public colleges, and just under 20 percent attend four-year private nonprofit colleges. More than 40 percent of students pursuing higher education in the United States are enrolled at community colleges and for-profit institutions pursuing a wide array of programs, studying everything from pastry baking and automotive repair to nursing and computer programming. As Blumenstyk observes, “the United States does not have a higher-education system; in effect, it has dozens of them” with varying goals, purposes, and clienteles.1 Some of them work much better than others.

Because of the comprehensive scope of Blumenstyk’s book, she passes quickly over some issues that have received a great deal of attention in other places. She has little to say about the content of higher education, the proliferation of “studies” programs, the politicization of the humanities and social sciences, or scandals in admissions and athletics programs. Affirmative action occupies only a few pages. She alludes to the culture wars but does not report on them.

Here is just some of the evidence for the extent and depth of the higher education crisis:

  • The price of higher education, over the past fifty years, has risen at more than three times the inflation rate. There are 175 colleges with a sticker price of over $50,000 a year. The cost of attending a private college now averages 55 percent of median family income; the cost of a four-year public college averages 16 percent.

  • Student debt has soared to over $1.2 trillion. That’s more than the total amount of credit card debt in the U.S.; it’s more than the total amount Americans owe on auto loans. Graduate students, typically studying for professional degrees, are responsible for 40 percent of the debt. The average undergraduate borrows less than $7,000, which may come as a surprise to some observers.

  • Colleges and universities are facing financial difficulties. The recent announcement that Sweet Briar College will close, seeing no way to make itself financially viable, is the latest indication of trouble. Many colleges are having to raise their discount rates, offering scholarships to more and more students just to be able to fill entering classes. State aid has declined on a per-student basis as higher education loses out to other priorities.2 Debt levels have doubled.

  • Demographic trends are likely to make these problems worse. The number of high school students graduating each year seems set to decline for most of the coming decade. Graduating classes moreover are likely to have higher percentages of lower-income and minority students than previous classes. Traditionally, students from those groups are less likely to attend college, especially a four-year college, and are less likely to graduate when they do attend. They will also require higher levels of financial aid.

  • The increased cost of higher education results from factors that are almost entirely nonacademic. Colleges now employ more administrators than faculty members. Administrative salaries have soared. Spending on student amenities such as climbing walls and outdoor pool complexes has increased dramatically. Athletic spending has risen. In short, colleges have been charging more and spending the additional funds on everything but teaching and learning.

  • Tenured and tenure-track faculty now make up less than one-fourth of the professoriate, if it is still appropriate to call it that. Fifteen percent are full-time temporary faculty, 40 percent are part-time adjuncts, and 20 percent are graduate students. Salaries of individual faculty members have done slightly better than keeping up with inflation, but spending per faculty member has decreased due to the substitution of temporary faculty for tenure-track faculty.

  • Teaching loads have declined—though it is hard to say by how much, since there is little data on the question. But teaching in general has taken a back seat to research; tenure-track faculty are increasingly paid not to teach but to do research or perform other kinds of tasks.

  • Higher education today tends to reinforce socioeconomic class divisions. “[A] person from an upper-income family is nearly nine times as likely to have earned a bachelor’s degree by age twenty-four than is one from a poor family” (xiv)—73 percent versus 8 percent. The growth of merit scholarships actually makes this problem worse, for those most likely to earn scholarships are from higher-income families. Pell grants and other government financial aid programs have led to an increase in minority and low-income enrollment, but recipients overwhelmingly tend to enroll at community and for-profit colleges, while more affluent students enroll at four-year institutions. Most community college students hope to transfer eventually to a four-year college, but fewer than one in five who plan to transfer manage to do it.

  • The quality of higher education is questionable. Students study fewer hours than prior generations of students, and independent tests show little to no increase in learning after several years of study, even at highly rated private colleges. College rankings largely reward inputs rather than outputs; colleges rise in the rankings by spending more per student. But no one measures how much that spending accomplishes—how much students actually learn.

  • More people are attending college; 31 percent of all adults over twenty-five have bachelor’s degrees, and 57 percent have at least some college credit. Those numbers have almost tripled since 1971. The vast expansion of higher education has many benefits for individuals and for society at large, but it also challenges colleges and universities to find ways of serving populations they had not served in the past.

  • The traditional student, attending college straight out of high school, is less prevalent than before. More than a third of all undergraduates go to school part-time. About as many work full-time while in school, and an equal number are over twenty-five. Nearly one-fourth have children of their own.

  • Only 2 percent of colleges accept fewer than 25 percent of their applicants, and only 15 percent accept fewer than half. About 17 percent are open admissions.

  • The Obama administration, the Lumina Foundation, and other organizations have articulated a goal of having 60 percent of all Americans attain some postsecondary educational credential. That risks devaluing such a credential, both because the easiest way to attain the goal is to lower standards and because a greater supply of credentialed adults is bound to lower the return on having the credential. How it is possible to attain this goal in the face of continued waves of low-skilled immigrants is a question no one seems to want to discuss.

  • The nature of education is changing. “Liberal arts colleges are dying,” Blumenstyk writes. “But that has been the case for decades” (142). Only about 130 liberal arts colleges still exist. More than half of all college students major in business, engineering, or nursing.

That brings us to Michael Roth’s defense of liberal education in Beyond the University: Why Liberal Education Matters. Roth, president of Wesleyan University, sketches a broad history of attitudes toward higher education in the United States, looking at a series of important thinkers and issues. He develops his own view in the context of that history. He dissents from some orthodoxies (for example, the emphasis on critical thinking) in original and sensible ways. And he is right that the liberal arts need and merit defense.

The book is nonetheless frustrating. His discussions of individual thinkers remain general and frequently superficial. Thomas Jefferson, Frederick Douglass, Ralph Waldo Emerson, W.E.B. Du Bois, Jane Addams, William James, John Dewey, and Richard Rorty are the good guys. Booker T. Washington, Theodore Roosevelt, Allan Bloom, Charles Murray, Richard Vedder, and the National Association of Scholars are the bad guys. Few arguments grace these pages. A reader might draw conclusions about why liberal education is disappearing: Those who should be its chief apostles undermine it in what they think, say, and do. They replace interpretation with insinuation, argument with insult, and balanced inquiry with advocacy.

Roth recognizes some of the problems that Blumenstyk details. But he takes little note of institutions other than selective colleges and universities. He begins his historical survey with Jefferson, who thought that everyone should be educated to preserve freedom, conduct personal affairs, and continue learning. Roth criticizes Jefferson for excluding women, blacks, and Native Americans from his educational plans, and excoriates him at some length for his racism. The relevance of this discussion to the theme of the chapter, however, is unclear. Roth seems to slide between two distinct questions: (1) What is higher education’s goal? (2) For whom would such an education be appropriate? The questions are connected—a good education for one person might be a poor choice for another—but the narrowness of Jefferson’s answer to the second question implies nothing at all about the adequacy of his response to the first.

The real hero of Roth’s first chapter, however, is Emerson, who attacks educational institutions of his time for promoting conformity. Not until the chapter’s end do we learn what it was about, a “paradox”:

Our universities are supposed to have the authority and creativity to conduct research, produce knowledge, and spread it to as many people as possible.... But our universities are also supposed to be places that protect critical thinking—thinking that undermines belief in received wisdom. Engaged learners are anti-conformists aiming to discover more about who they are and what kind of work they might find most meaningful—not simply to accept what has been handed to them, even by the most reputable scholars.3

Why is this a paradox? Research requires learning and also pushing beyond the bounds of current knowledge. No one thinks students should accept what they’re told without question. But no one thinks that students are likely to be able to extend the bounds of knowledge without having any idea what they are. Self-transformation arises from an encounter with our accumulated knowledge and wisdom. To paraphrase Kant, knowledge without transformation is empty, but transformation without knowledge is blind.

Inquiry is an Aristotelian mean between conformity and anti-conformity. The conformist challenges too little; the anti-conformist challenges too much. An inquirer should challenge what ought to be challenged, in the right way, at the right time, and for the right reason. Those qualifications are important. Challenges can lead toward or away from a greater understanding. They should be mounted when they can be pursued and evaluated well. And they should be pursued with the goal of attaining truth. Discovering who you are and what you find meaningful is good. Discovering truth is better.

That is something Roth cannot say. Realists define inquiry and education as activities oriented toward the discovery and transmission of truth. Pragmatists such as Roth reverse the formula: Truth is whatever inquiry ultimately produces. Roth’s project is to defend liberal education without reference to truth. In the end, I think, that project is hopeless. Liberal education is valuable and very much worth defending. But it rests on a portrait of the world as complex yet intelligible, of thought as in some respects representational, and of inquiry as aiming at more adequate representations. Pragmatism rejects that portrait.

Chapter 2, “Pragmatism,” champions W.E.B. Du Bois’s stress on liberal education in opposition to Booker T. Washington’s emphasis on practical training. That might seem surprising, because pragmatists generally emphasize the practical over the theoretical. But Roth’s pragmatism is essentially Rorty’s, a postmodern variant that rejects not only representationalism but the theory of knowledge itself, replacing the self-correcting methodology of science stressed by C.S. Peirce with a humanistic politics—which becomes, in Roth’s hands, a politicized humanities. Roth admires Jane Addams, a pioneering social worker, sociologist, author, and leader in movements for women’s suffrage and world peace who advocates “affectionate interpretation,” “the imaginative effort to see things from the point of view of others,” as well as “public engagement in support of social progress” (84–85). The idea that education cannot and should not be value-neutral is hardly new. But Addams’s substitution of “social progress” for the Good, eudaimonia, or liberty is striking. Thomas Jefferson’s vision of educating people to preserve freedom, conduct personal affairs, and continue learning presupposes no particular political program or goal; the idea is rather to enable people to debate and decide upon such goals themselves. Addams, in contrast, has a specific, even partisan, view of social progress, and intends to enlist educational institutions to bring it about. Roth shows no concern for the difference.

In Chapter 3, “Controversies and Critics,” Roth traces conceptions of liberal education from Benjamin Franklin’s founding of the American Philosophical Society and the University of Pennsylvania through the Yale Report of 1828, M. Carey Thomas’s plan for education for women at Bryn Mawr, Charles William Eliot’s reforms at Harvard, and James Bryant Conant’s “Red Book.”4 Roth confronts Alan Bloom’s complaint that relativism empties the idea of liberal education of any content. Once one person’s vision of what to study, how to study it, and why is as good as anyone else’s, what can “liberal education” even mean?

To Roth’s credit, he takes the question seriously. He speaks of an anthropological view of culture that challenges the very idea of liberal education:

In other words, the anthropological view made no distinction between culture and convention. And it makes no sense to pick out the “Great Conventions” for ennobling study....But if the study of culture wasn’t ennobling, then why pursue it? (p. 145)

But Roth treats all who raise economic questions about higher education as “radical instrumentalists” (163) who think of education as nothing more than a commodity. He dismisses worries about a “higher education bubble” without citing Glenn Reynolds, who coined the phrase, and mocks Richard Vedder’s and Peter Wood’s concern that we are producing far more college graduates than the job market can absorb. The shoe salesman who went $10,000 in debt for his psychology major? The barista who owes $70,000 for her MA in gender studies? For Roth, those are “signs of a healthy republic” (148).

Is higher education, in Roth’s view, literally priceless? Is there any amount that would be too much to pay for a Wesleyan education? For asking questions like these, evidently, Vedder and Wood are reactionaries:

Rather than promoting the ever-expanding circle of the liberal arts, Wood and the National Association of Scholars would have us return to a common core of Western Civilization—by which they seem to mean European and American preindustrial values. They also seem to be very comfortable with the kinds of inequality that were characteristic of those societies. (p. 149)

So, these scholars are both radical instrumentalists who value education solely for its economic value and reactionaries who want a liberal education centered on Great Books, which have no particular economic value at all?

Surely “promoting the ever-expanding circle of the liberal arts” is not the duty of everyone who cares about higher education. Not all expansion is good. Some programs focus on an intersection of disciplines with a real intellectual unity and others don’t.

Neither does recommending a “return to a common core of Western Civilization” mean a return to “preindustrial values” or a comfort with preindustrial kinds of inequality (149). “The Texas List of Unrequired Reading,” crafted in 1987 by a University of Texas at Austin College of Liberal Arts committee as a blueprint for a common core, includes works by Karl Marx, Bertrand Russell, Robert Heilbroner, Huston Smith, Max Weber, William James, George Orwell, Alfred North Whitehead, Hans Reichenbach, Thomas Kuhn, Steven Weinberg, Joseph Conrad, Virginia Woolf, William Faulkner, Barbara Tuchman, and many others.5 Many Great Books programs include non-Western works. Roth’s straw man attack masks a more serious failure. He wants to affirm the importance, indeed, centrality of a liberal arts education while denying that there is any way to define such an education.

That brings us to the final chapter, “Reshaping Ourselves and Our Societies,” in which Roth lays out his vision of higher education. Here, the hero is John Dewey. Dewey’s conception of higher education, as Roth understands it, combines these theses:

  • The goal of education is “the formation of the proper social life.” (p. 166)

  • The goal of education is to increase the capacity for more education: the capacity to learn.

  • The goal is not, contra Jefferson, individual liberty and independence, but interdependence and social capacities.

  • Education should teach the past solely to enable people to solve problems in the present.

  • The goal of inquiry is “to free experience from routine and from caprice.” (p. 172)

Rote learning and the quest for truth are bad; doubt and politically guided inquiry are good.

Once again, the proper attitude would seem to lie in the mean. How can students raise meaningful questions and conduct worthwhile inquiry into them if they don’t have a relevant base of knowledge, enough skill that certain basic intellectual moves are automatic, and the goal of truth toward which to direct their activities?

Inquiry can take place in a context replete with open problems and tools for trying to solve them or in an impoverished setting working with little more than vague questions and fuzzy goals. Our conception of what is relevant to solving problems in the present depends on our conception of the present and its problems. If that conception is impoverished, our conception of what is relevant will be, too. Those who misconceive the present and its problems can hardly expect to solve them.

We cannot predict what knowledge will turn out to be crucial to solving the problems of the future. Pragmatism, in theory, embodies a fallibilist humility about our intellectual accomplishments. In practice, however, it tends to promote an intellectual hubris, a view of ourselves and our Zeitgeist as the arbiters of intellectual value.

Roth ends with a critique of critical thinking, which, he recognizes, tends to encourage skepticism, detachment, and guardedness rather than open inquiry. Liberal education should develop participants in our shared life rather than detached and often alienated observers. He calls us to a vision of liberal education: “a way of turning the heart and the spirit so as to hear possibilities of various forms of life in which we might actively participate” (187). This remains vague: Which way of turning the heart and spirit? Socrates would surely ask. What about the mind? What kind of education best achieves this? Roth gives us little more than hints. He seems unaware that his vision bears an uncanny resemblance to that of his opponents, who would argue that studying Great Books and Ideas is the best way of implementing his vision.

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