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The Current State of U.S. Higher Education, Top to Bottom

By Frank Donoghue

The Current State of U.S. Higher Education, Top to Bottom© Cheng Chang - iStockphoto.com
It is only possible to understand higher education in the United States in light of the intensified concentration of wealth in the country during the last thirty years. During that time the richest one percent of Americans have come to own more private wealth than the bottom 90 percent; the top ten percent of Americans own 71 percent of all private wealth. The sharp divide between the country's socioeconomic groups is mirrored by the country's higher education system. Here's the simplest overview I can provide of what is currently happening, and what is likely to continue. The top and bottom strata of U.S. higher education have grown so different from each other that they have ceased to constitute a single coherent social institution. Universities at the top now have different values, a different mission, different teaching personnel, and different sources of funding than those at the bottom. Universities in the middle stratum are torn between these extremes. I would like to devote this article to elaborating on these differences and their implications for the future.

First, the top. Rapidly rising tuitions since the early 1980s have converted the country's elite universities and colleges into a domain for the children of the wealthy, for only they can afford the price of admission. They see attending a university such as Harvard, Yale or Princeton almost as a birthright, and indeed, in many ways they're right. 14 percent of Yale's undergraduates are "legacies," sons and daughters of Yale graduates. George W. Bush is a perfect example - a man of extremely limited intellectual ability and, by his own admission, no intellectual curiosity, he was admitted to Yale because his father and his grandfather had been graduates. Harvard's "Committee on University Resources" is generally restricted to those who have given the university at least $1 million. Of the 340 committee members who have children who are college age or past college age, 336 children are currently enrolled or have been enrolled at Harvard (The Last Professors, 157). These universities have become the means by which the American plutocracy replicates itself. Socioogist Jeremy Karabell, author of The Chosen: The Hidden History of Admission and Exclusion at Harvard, Yale and Princeton, cites a recent study of 146 selective colleges and universities which concluded that students "from the top quartile of the socioeconomic hierarchy. . .are 25 times more likely to attend a 'top tier' college than students from the bottom quartile" (New York Times, September 24, 2007).

Such institutions are also extraordinarily expensive commodities, a fact that reinforces their exclusivity. The average tuition for a single year at the U.S.'s most elite universities is more than the average annual income of American citizens (more than $35,000 versus $29,000) (Chris Hedges, Empire of Illusion, 165). And college tuition typically represents the last in a series of hefty payments. The best way to maximize one's chances of admission to an elite university is to attend an equally elite proprietary high school. Bush, for example, graduated from Phillips Andover Academy, where annual tuition, room and board is also more than the average annual American wage. A final crucial factor in admissions to U.S. universities is the SAT (The Scholastic Assessment Test) is a very important component of every student's college application. The pressure to perform well on the SAT has spawned a small industry of test-preparation companies. The best of these is, the Princeton Review, offers a deluxe tutorial package for $7,000, which virtually guarantees that the student/customer will score very highly on the SAT.

Once students arrive at the U.S's high-end colleges they are often not primarily seeking an education in ideas, information and values, but instead they are continuing to secure the commodity which they began pursuing when they were first pointed toward these schools. Since the debut in 1983 of U.S. News & World Report's annual issue on America's best colleges, American's have taken that journal's rankings as gospel truth. Attending and graduating from a highly ranked university entails embracing a system of commidified prestige, in which one's diploma is valued more or less highly depending on one's university's ranking. Your social and professional self worth become inextricably linked to the university from which you earn your degree. Colleges are thus reduced to brand names, some far more impressive than others (Princeton is to Porsche as Ohio State is to Honda); actual education thus can take a back seat to the process of affiliating oneself to that brand name. There are of course exceptions: current president Barack Obama grew up in a relatively poor household yet graduated from Columbia University and Harvard Law School. A student at Harvard, Yale, Princeton or Columbia who is more interested in learning than in prestige (or at least equally interested in both) can get an extraordinary education. But the norm, as Karabell defines it, is clear, and that opportunity is primarily available to the wealthy.

This process, of course, rests on a series of dubious assumptions, the shakiest of which is the validity of the U.S. News & World Report's ranking scheme (or any other ranking scheme for that matter). The U.S. News ranking formula purportedly makes sense of and attaches value to a vast assortment of data about universities and colleges (rates of admission, percentage of students who graduated in the top ten percent of their high school classes, student-teacher ratio, rates of alumni donation, and other information). The specificity of the formula, though, can easily tempt universities in pursuit of higher rankings to tweak the numbers (admit slightly fewer students, make slight adjustments in class size to lower the student-faculty ratio, etc.) Clemson University made several such adjustments; then an admissions officer, Catherine E. Watt, publicly admitted that the University did so in order to bring its data more closely in line with U.S News' values. And it worked: Clemson shot from 33rd to 22nd among public universities in just one year, but the "improvement" was perceived as unsavory by everyone who understood how it was made (Inside Higher Education, June 9, 2009).

Another temptation to manipulate the rankings stems from the fact that a "reputation survey," which can be completed only by a college's president, provost or admissions dean, counts for a full 25 percent or the final assessment in U.S. News' formula. The reputation surveys require administrators to compare their universities or academic departments to peer institutions. The surveys are impressionistic, often uninformed, and certainly offer those who complete them a strong temptation do downgrade their peers. Reports of such instances of "gaming the system" have circulated for years, and are documented in the Clemson case.

In response to these irregularities, Lloyd Thacker, founder of the Education Conservancy, a group devoted to the decommercialization of college admissions, has urged college presidents to boycott the U.S. News' reputation surveys - and with great success. A few years ago, the national participation rate was 67 percent; last year only 46 percent completed the survey, severely undermining the credibility of that vital component of the rankings system. It's difficult to know how all this will turn out. Thacker's tireless efforts have certainly shaped academic and even popular opinion, but the U.S. is a nation obsessed with competition and thus with rankings. Robert Oden Jr., president of Carleton College, which chose not to join the boycott, cautions, "I think some series of rankings are with us for now and for the future." Whether it is "best fly-fishing river" or best college."

Now for the bottom. At the other end of the U.S. higher education spectrum are a host of institutions that never entered the prestige race or concerned themselves with national rankings. Yet they are the real beneficiaries of the rising costs of America's colleges and universities. These post-secondary schools - various kinds of community and technical colleges and a growing number of for-profit universities - have several points of appeal that are missing from the country's traditional colleges. They are emphatically practical and occupation-oriented, thus offering an alternative to the somewhat abstract benefits of a traditional liberal arts education. They are less expensive for several reasons. First, community colleges require only a two-year (as opposed to four-year) time commitment from students.

Meanwhile, for-profit universities have become expert at guiding applicants and prospective students through the U.S.'s byzantine financial aid system. That system is, in fact, a rapidly metastasizing cancer that is eating away at the foundation of the country's entire higher education enterprise. First, as higher education has become increasingly privatized and government support has dwindled, tuition grants have simply failed to keep pace with the rising costs. The largest such program, the PELL Grants, covered 84% of tuition at four-year public universities in 1976, but by 2002 covered only 39%, and the ratio is shrinking rapidly (Advisory Committee on Student Financial Assistance. Washington, D.C., 2001). Education loans have largely replaced grants and are now "the prevalent mode of financing higher education, applying to two-thirds of those who attend" (Jeffrey J. Williams, "Student Debt and the Spirit of Indenture" Dissent Magazine, February 5, 2009). In 1984, the average American college graduate owed $2000 in federal student load debt; in 2004, that average had risen to $19,200. Meanwhile, private student loan companies have mushroomed: private loans have quintupled since 1996. An idiosyncrasy of the system is that these loans are guaranteed: they cannot be bankrupted; the lenders thus take no risks in offering them even to unqualified students. Applying for student loans in the U.S. is a bewildering process, but the for-profit higher education industry specializes in facilitating the process, which guarantees for-profit colleges a substantial risk-free income stream.

Both community colleges and for-profits rely almost exclusively on adjunct labor, instructors who are paid by the course, and hired and fired at will as student enrollment dictates. They do not require their faculty to do academic research, nor do they fund research. These institutions circumvent all the expenses of a traditional, tenured professoriate, a large group of employees with retirement benefits and health insurance, much of whose time is set aside for scholarship. One could argue, convincingly I believe, that the working conditions of teachers at the bottom of the U.S. post-secondary hierarchy, many of whom teach at three or more institutions, can only dilute the quality of instruction they offer to students who are often poorly qualified for college in the first place.

Yet these institutions will continue to thrive. In addition to being less expensive, these institutions are also more convenient than traditional universities. Not only do they typically offer courses in the evening and on weekends, but more importantly, they are pioneers in the new arena of online learning, where traditional universities have lagged. Online learning perfectly suits today's typical U.S. college student. No longer is that student an eighteen to twenty-two year old fresh out of high school. The rising cost of traditional college tuition causes people to start college later in life, interrupt their studies (in order to raise and manage their financial resources), and thus take longer to finish their degrees. The typical U.S. college student today is twenty-six years old, has a domestic partner, and works thirty hours a week. For many of them, the prospect of making their way through a four-year curriculum is unwieldy, even daunting. Thus the growing number of alternative post-secondary institutions, with their extensive on-line offerings, have an understandable appeal.

Because there are relatively few students who can afford to experience the university of prestige, I predict that these newer, occupation-oriented institutions, whether public or proprietary, will come to define U.S. higher education in the twenty-first century. The elite universities and their commitment to the liberal arts will survive, and they will continue to supply the country with its mandarin class: doctors, lawyers, professors, serious journalists. But beyond that realm, as I have suggested elsewhere, the B.A. and B.S. will largely be replaced by a kind of educational passport that will document each student's educational certifications at one or several schools, the credentials directly relevant to his or her future occupation. Since this kind of on-demand schooling does not require a full-scale baccalaureate program, the two-year college, often run for profit, will become the standard post-secondary educational vehicle.

I could not conclude without at least mentioning the shrinking middle stratum of U.S. higher education, which is most vulnerable as we advance into the future. America's major state universities, once subsidized by public money and central to the country's educational mission, have lost their way, and now stand at a perilous crossroads. They do attempt to compete for prestige, but sharply diminished state funding have greatly weakened their standing and made it impossible for them to match the resources of Harvard, Yale and Princeton. Their efforts to claim any degree of prestige are thus hollow. On the other hand the state universities also aim to prepare students for future employment in practical occupations. Indeed, many of them were originally chartered to do exactly that. Yet they have consistently proven that they cannot deliver occupation-oriented training as effectively as community colleges or for-profit universities. This leaves the state universities torn between two models of operation and well-suited for neither. If they fail to clarify their mission in the next generation, they will become obsolete.

What does this bifurcation of higher education in the U.S. portend? I believe that the move toward a less time-intensive and more occupation-oriented post-secondary training will have a profound impact on the skills of the country's workforce. In analyzing the bottom, but soon to be dominant, strata of U.S. higher education, I am identifying a class of institutions that aim to produce not future lawyers but paralegals, not doctors specializing in radiology but radiation technicians - in other words, low-level professionals who fall into Robert Reich's category of "in person service workers." The U.S. has increasingly become a service economy. Should the higher education transformation I chart here continue to unfold, that service economy will become more firmly entrenched. The range of careers available to college-educated Americans will continue to shrink, as a "college degree" becomes synonymous with a two-year credential. The devolution of higher education in the U.S. was not inevitable, but it was fairly likely to happen.

It is a function of a fairly recent (1980s forward) but abrupt reversion of attitudes toward higher education and thus in higher education policy as well. The period 1946 to 1976 will be remembered as the Golden Years. The Serviceman's Readjustment Act (popularly known as the G.I. Bill) gave hundreds of thousands of veterans of World War II and the Korean Conflict free access to college. American universities expanded ambitiously as a result, and were additionally buoyed by the "space race" with the Soviet Union (which spurred further investment in education). By 1980, if not before, the tide had turned, and the nation reverted to its traditional American position, namely that higher education is not a civic responsibility. The broad historical context for this attitude is spelled out in Richard Hofstadter's classic, Anti-intellectualism in America (1962). The consequent erosion of public funding for colleges and universities, and for college students as well, led to the escalating tuitions that I identify as the root cause of the problems in American higher education and the subsequent dilution of its quality and narrowing of its focus. This doesn't bode well for the U.S. As India and China rapidly expand their university systems, it's simply a bad time to be poorly educated.