• 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.


Friday Fragments

The shrinking middle class, growing selectivity and priorities.

December 11, 2015

I’ve suggested before that part of the reason community colleges have struggled over the last couple of decades is that they’re built to produce a middle class for a country that no longer wants one.

To paraphrase Mencken, the country is getting what it wants, and getting it good and hard. According to this study from the Pew Research Center, the middle class is no longer the majority in America.

Nitpick away, but the larger point is hard to refute. Income and wealth polarization have hit levels at which they become self-reinforcing. Institutions built to serve the middle are suffering accordingly. The squeeze is real, and intensifying.

As a culture, we’ve forgotten that middle classes are not naturally occurring. They have to be created, consciously.  

For young people coming into adulthood now, higher education has never been more necessary or more expensive. That’s a cruel dilemma, and it speaks to polarization. If you don’t win, you very much lose. It wasn’t always that way, and it doesn’t have to be.

The great gift of education is in showing that the present doesn’t have to be.  


Along those lines comes a study showing that performance-based funding for public universities in Indiana didn’t lead to more degrees, but it did lead to more selectivity.

See “polarization,” above. If we define the performance of public institutions by the efficiency with which they produce degrees, then naturally they will tend to favor those who are easiest to graduate.  What looks like an obvious good -- efficiency -- becomes yet another form of polarization. The force of economic gravity is powerful.

“Efficiency” isn’t a Platonic ideal. It only makes sense in reference to a goal -- you’re efficient _at_ something.  Public higher education has a “mission” -- folks in the community college world speak of the “mission” all the time.  

The mission has never been more necessary or more difficult.  


Meanwhile, “[h]igh school counselors say they now spend more time advising families on paying for college than on choosing the right college to go to…”  

Public higher ed was supposed to make that easy. After decades of cost-shifting, it doesn’t anymore.  

The new normal doesn’t have to be this way.  As a polity, we’ve chosen to make it this way.

We could choose not to.



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