• Confessions of a Community College Dean

    In which a veteran of cultural studies seminars in the 1990s moves into academic administration and finds himself a married suburban father of two. Foucault, plus lawn care.

Title

Eating the Young

Who benefits from higher education? Who needs to benefit?

 

January 17, 2018
 
 

I’ve been impressively nearsighted since childhood, so I’ve spent more than my share of time in optometrists’ offices. They have a mechanism that fits poorly over the face, with which one eye’s view is blocked while the other goes through a series of different lenses, trying to read the chart. (“Which is better - one, or two? Three, or four?”) Somehow I never see quite as well with either eye as I do with both. When the two come together, the image gets clearer.

That was how these two stories struck me. Either on its own says one thing, but put together, a much clearer picture emerges.  In this case, the picture is of a generational pattern.

The St. Louis Federal Reserve reported that all of the job growth in the United States since the year 2000 went to workers ages 55 and over. Which is to say, Boomers and earlier. All of it. The whole thing. Since the dawn of the millennium, my own generation, now in its prime working years, got zero. 

The report drily notes: “Some economists fear that our aging workforce may be holding back economic growth.”  

(fingers tapping)

On the very same day, I saw this report that West Virginia is adopting a version of free community college that includes both drug testing and a post-graduation residency requirement in West Virginia. Public higher education for the young will come with strings that never applied to earlier generations, when it was cheap enough that they could pay for it themselves. That way, the state can use them to support the ever-growing ranks of retirees whose educations came without strings.

(fingers tapping)

Those of us who work at colleges with declining enrollment have become familiar with “cutting by attrition,” which means closing off jobs to the next generation that were open to a previous one, in order not to offend remaining incumbents of the previous generation who have more generous pensions than their successors will ever see.

(fingers tapping)

These are not signs of health. These are not signs of stewardship. This is a system eating its young, sacrificing the future to cushion the present.  

As an educator, I have a problem with that. The premise of education is creating a better future. That’s the basis of the entire enterprise. It’s what we do.  Education may draw on the best of the past, but at its core, it’s about the future. 

I can’t help but wonder if that’s part of why public education is struggling. It’s a forward-looking enterprise in a culture that isn’t. Snowballing austerity compels us to adopt behaviors that undercut the logic of what we do. Graduate programs keep taking new students because they need cheap labor, even knowing that full-time jobs for new Ph.D.’s are the exception.  

In a healthy society, intergenerational transfers of wealth move down, not up. We’re moving them up, and at an accelerating rate. That can’t go on forever.

Unsustainable trends, won’t be. At some point, they stop. I hope we can turn this trend around thoughtfully, before it fails catastrophically. As I get older, I realize that the future keeps coming, whether you’re prepared for it or not. We’re in the preparation business. It has never been more urgent. I may be nearsighted, but I can see this clearly. 
 

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