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After the Ivory Tower Falls: How College Broke the American Dream and Blew Up Our Politics—and How to Fix It by Will Bunch

Published in August of 2022.

Higher ed insiders are talking about Will Bunch’s After the Ivory Tower Falls. I’m hearing rumbles of book clubbing.

Should you organize and participate in a campus conversation about After the Ivory Tower Falls? Is it worth collecting a group of colleagues, scheduling a physical and virtual room, and scrounging up the funds to buy everyone a copy? The answers to all these questions are “yes.”

After the Ivory Tower Falls is a book we in academia should be engaging with. Bunch’s thesis that the deep political and cultural divisions that increasingly define the US can be traced to failures of higher education around access, costs, debt, and relevance will make for a fascinating campus conversation.

Will reading and discussing After the Ivory Tower Falls provide us within higher education with any roadmap or actionable set of ideas for how we might change our institutions for the better? You will have to tell us how your book clubbing conversations go, but the likely answer is “not really.” And this is too bad, as After the Ivory Tower Falls is full of penetrating insights about the worrisome arc of our postsecondary system across the last seven decades.

The fact that After the Ivory Tower Falls is written primarily for those outside the academy is not a failing of this deeply researched and passionately argued book. I hope that readers come away convinced that:

A) We must support policies and politicians committed to investing in public colleges and universities, especially community colleges.

B) That too much attention is paid to elite colleges and universities and that the real focus of higher education conversations should be on community colleges and state institutions, the defunding of public education, and the $1.7 trillion higher ed debt crisis.

Still, I wish Bunch’s reporting had surfaced some of the issues that those of us within academia are debating today as we try to confront challenges of student costs and access while navigating significant structural demographic and funding challenges.

For instance, while the book talks about for-profit education and its role in the student debt crisis, there is almost no analysis of the growth of non-profit/for-profit partnerships. The big questions that many colleges and universities are grappling with now have to do with the wisdom (and risks) of working with online program management (OPM) companies and for-profit online learning platform providers.

The answer to whether colleges and universities should or shouldn’t work with for-profit companies on online degree and non-degree programs is not simple. For many schools, partnering with a company such as Coursera and edX/2U to offer new online programs is part of an institutional strategy to drive down learner costs and enhance access. This is especially true of schools working with partners to provide scaled low-cost degree programs and a range of alternative credential non-degree online courses.

Another theme left unexamined in After the Ivory Tower Falls are the efforts of colleges and universities to advance learning and enhance student support. Students get themselves in the most trouble with student debt when they fail to graduate. University efforts to raise retention rates and shorten the time to graduation have yielded uneven success. An analysis of why the US education system seems to do an excellent job of admitting students but a poor job of graduating them would have been welcome in this book, as success stories and innovative programs could have been highlighted.

Despite these higher ed insider critiques, I want to stress that After the Ivory Tower Falls is an important and persuasive book. We should be talking about a sort of universal national service gap year for all high school graduates. And certainly, there are conversations we should be having on our campuses about what role the higher ed industry should be playing in policy conversations related to student debt.

The core idea of After the Ivory Tower Falls, that the Blue State / Red State political divide is, in reality, a growing chasm between those who completed college (38 percent) and those who have not (everyone else), is undoubtedly worth debating and likely internalizing.

We should remember our history of the consensus around the value of higher education for everyone coming out of World War II and the GI Bill and do everything we can to re-energize the idea that college should be a public and not a private good.

What is necessary, I think, is for us to do the work to connect the big ideas of After the Ivory Tower Falls to things that we can do at our institutions to grow access and lower the costs of a college education.

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