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    Tracy Mitrano explores the intersection where higher education, the Internet and the world meet (and sometimes collide).

Literacy in the Digital Age: Part IV
May 23, 2011 - 10:15pm

Higher education faces a combination of challenges today. First and foremost, the concept that education is a public good is on the wane. What are its effects? For over a generation now, private college tuition has risen faster than inflation to the point that on average it costs in the ballpark of $50,000 per year per student, a sum that has become the subject of concern, if not invective, from parents and students who graduate with degrees that do not provide jobs that safely allow them to pay back the debt.

Meanwhile, public support has decreased significantly. Most states hover in the single digit support; only Alaska, which has a different trajectory, remains at the high level of 38%. Large state systems such as California and New York want more local control, which is understandable, but may also contribute to the tendency toward a frightening divide within the state systems between universities and colleges, rich and poor. That divide spans out to include one between a liberal arts education, which increasingly seems like a luxury few can afford, and a vocational degree, which creates employment expectations but offers no promises that it will teach a student how to think. Furthermore, there appears to be a false dichotomy emerging between the two. What ever happened to the notion of embedding critical thinking in all forms and levels of education?

All of this disappointment in the ideals for which probably many people in this room dedicated their life’s work only adds to the distress that we are “Academically Adrift.” Just yesterday the authors, Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa, opined in The New York Times that students study and learn less than they did a generation ago. This morning I opened the Chronicle of Higher Education and the lead article is entitled “Crisis of Confidence Threatens Colleges: 1 in 3 Presidents See Academe on Wrong Road.” And I don’t know if this news is good or bad, but the lead article in Inside Higher Ed this morning is “Is Faculty Life as It Once Was Officially a Relic?” Quite honestly, I cannot remember the last time I read an uplifting article in either the Chronicle of Higher Education or Inside Higher Ed!

As if that were not enough disappointment with which to deal, when we look to government we find regulation at every turn. An entire volume could be devoted to this topic, so allow me to make only two points. The first is that regulation is most certainly driving up both the cost and the price of higher education, that is the amount of money it costs to run an institution and the amount of money institutions must therefore charge students for tuition. Second, for-profit education, which is hungrily taking bites out of not-for-profit higher education’s “market share,” is exponentially compounding the regulatory problem. Self-regulation, the Carnegie categories for one example, has maintained a certain degree of quality assurance, if you will, within higher education over the last half-century.

Although the following statement is a generalization, I am willing to stand by it: for-profit education has taken advantage of the good will that self-regulated higher education has built up over that time, and used it to its own profiteering advantage much to the detriment of students. It is not a wonder that students have turned to consumer law for redress. A generation or more ago students staged sit-ins and held protest movements to express discontent with administrative policy. Gone is any pretense of the implicit parietal relationship that undergirded those protest movements. In their place is a cold, market exchange of expectations: I, the student, pay good money. You, the institution, provide me with the training and certification that results in employment upon graduation.

Education is no longer a life-long process. It is a commodity to be bought and sold. In the meantime, wronged "consumers" are asking government to step in and monitor the wrongs committed largely by for-profit actors, although when the Department of Education lowers the boom it makes no distinctions. If we in the not-for-profit sector thought regulation was already at the high water mark before these events, we better recalibrate. It is about to get much, much worse. And of course the economy in general and the unemployment rate in particular, which is not changing much even as the stock market recovers, are factors outside of the control of either for or not for profit education and have made the entire calculus of responsibilities more difficult to master.

 

 

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