The College Identity Crisis


Ivory Tower

Going to college is getting complicated. With higher ed becoming both more essential and less of a guarantee of future success, many young people today face a kind of impossible choice. At the same time, for many kids higher education has become an expectation, a social obligation, less an accomplishment than a prerequisite to something more difficult and less certain. It’s also becoming much less attainable.

It wasn’t always like this. For generations, college offered a romanticized leap into the middle class—practically a guarantee of future prosperity, or at least, a good chance of avoiding the job market’s worst pitfalls. All through American history, it’s impossible to separate education from the idea of social mobility, and by extension, the possibility of equality. Access to higher education formed a big part of the early women’s rights movement, and later, antislavery and civil rights. Federal aid to education was at the center of Washington’s desegregation effort under the Johnson and Nixon administrations. From a student’s perspective, higher education can instill self-direction and lifelong learning, and can teach us to discover new ideas in a collaborative, community-based way.

But more recently, when people talk about education in America, they mostly talk about crisis. And not just the student debt crisis that movements like Occupy recently propelled into the national consciousness. And not just the crisis in higher education that’s impoverishing instructors and grad students and underfunding the liberal arts. The other crisis—the one that’s been at the center of our education policy for two administrations—is about competitiveness. It’s this idea that has spurred the Gates Foundation to pump hundreds of millions into struggling schools. It’s also the subject of a popular and fascinating 2010 documentary (Waiting for “Superman) on why schools must address changes in the global economy.

We’ve all heard the argument. Students in Europe and Asia are outperforming Americans on standardized tests, especially in math and science. We have lower graduation rates than other countries (college and high school), and those that do graduate don’t study the right things. On average, class sizes have gone down and education spending has gone up since the 1960s, and we’re still at the back of the rich country pack. And this is an information age, with an information-based global marketplace, and we’d better be ready to compete with the tech schools in China that are churning out millions of engineers a year. The U.S. job market is still hurting, but the real growth areas will be in—you guessed it—math and science. We need more chemical engineers now than novelists. More computer technicians than historians.

Beyond the anti-union rhetoric and reductive view of social inequality that usually comes out of a discussion like this, it’s a really interesting argument. After World War II, higher education was available to more people than ever before through programs like the GI bill. That availability reshaped the American economy, supporting a large middle class and low inequality. But today, the prevailing wisdom is that schools must “provide an education that is relevant to the needs of business,” in the words of Bill Gates, whose Gates Foundation has become a major player in the ongoing debate. So rather than take an active role in creating the society of the future, schools should instead react to whatever incentives and deterrents already exist in the global marketplace. Moreover, they should tailor the student experience to the future requirements of private enterprise. “Computer science employment is growing by nearly 100,000 jobs annually,” Gates wrote in 2007. “But at the same time studies show that there is a dramatic decline in the number of students graduating with computer science degrees.” The key to our America’s future prosperity, Gates says, is to correct this imbalance.

And that’s just what the Gates Foundation has been up to for the past decade, says the American Prospect. While most states and districts have recently been cutting back on education spending, organizations like Gates, the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation and the Walton Family Foundation have swooped in with fast cash in reward for their vision of education reform. Mostly that means charters, standardized tests, and lots of math and science. It also means quantifying student and teacher performance, using cash to reward success and punish failure, and battling with teachers unions.

Kiffani Irby
6/19/2012 6:18:07 PM

I understand this argument however there is still value in education for education's sake, especially here in the US. Where else is one taught critical thinking skills? An appreciation for a larger worldview? Actual history? It's sad to go into a high school and ask graduating seniors basic questions like "Who is Martin Luther King, Jr.?" and have them not know or respond with "he freed the slaves". Most high school graduates can't pass the citizenship test we give to immigrants wishing to become naturalized, that's a problem as we move into a globally competitive marketplace. Math and Science are important but research indicates students who are involved in the arts (music, dance, etc) actually do better in math and science so we can't discount them. Teh larger problem is that because of "states' rights" there is no barometer for what a high school graduate does or should no. A high school diploma in Connecticut means something different from one in Florida and for employers this is a challenge which is why I think we're seeing more people hire those with AA degrees or some type of post-secondary education for jobs that used to only require a high school diploma.

6/19/2012 4:48:57 AM

Whatever else anyone says--about a college education being exclusively an investment with a job as the only valid payoff, about its service to the competetive spirit in today's global economy, about how expendable an old-fashioned liberal arts education may be, about how testing subverts cerativity, ect, I would still like to purchase an insurance policy from someone, have a medical technician administer an MRI or an EKG, teach my grandson how to diagram sentences, or be represented by a congressperson who has read Shakespeare grapple with the complex dilemma Hamlet faces or recognizes the irony that destroy's King Lear in his vainglorius demand that his daughters outdo each other in declaring their love for him. Say what one will about any education, it is worthless if students do not learn to recognize nuance, live with complexity, make value judgments with informed integrity, or feel compassion selflessly.

David Kimball
6/18/2012 8:43:37 PM

Perhaps to have a discussion on the importance of education and jobs, we need to also include the issue of fair pay. There are many teachers hired each year, but at low wages. But they add a great value to society. There are many social workers hired each year, but at low wages. Buth they also add a great value to society. If we were to pay people for their value to society, including technological advancements, we would have a much better basis to judge what kind of educations we should foster.

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