How Did This Happen?

vampire

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.

It’s a dangerous situation for our students, but it’s a very, very secure place to do business, isn’t it? Safe streets, docile citizens willing to work for low wages.

I think she’s presenting something very interesting here. College costs, after all, do not necessarily increase beyond the level of affordability. There are things colleges buy. With all of this “strategic planning,” they’re making choices. These things reflect university priorities. The situation in which we find ourselves is probably not accidental.

It’s not entirely well documented, of course. In order to believe that Scott is really right I’d think there would have to be some sort of planning meeting among American business executives, but still, it may have really happened anyway; certainly they’ve gotten everything that they wanted. A great big respect for businesses, much less union power. And when was the last time we saw a business crippled by angry protestors?

Even Occupy Wall Street, which certainly complained about student loan debt, didn’t actually do anything to reduce student debt. What could they do? What options did they have?

Daniel Luzer

Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer