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Perhaps you saw a recent interview in Jacobin entitled “U.S. Colleges and Universities Are Becoming Giant Exploitation Machines.”

The interviewee, Dennis M. Hogan, is a labor activist and postdoctoral fellow at Haverford College. The article’s subtitle sums up the interview’s theme: “Since the 1970s, many colleges and universities have become predatory financial giants, while mountains of student debt pile up and academic work becomes ever more precarious.”

Not surprisingly, hyperbole runs through the article. Here’s one example:

“Major universities and elite colleges have become leviathan-like entities lording over their cities and towns, operating as real estate developer, landlord, cop, medical provider and boss—not only to academic workers, but also to many blue-collar workers whose jobs are often contracted out to third parties. At a time when wealthy universities have celebrated historic returns to their multibillion-dollar endowments, public universities suffer from decades of declining state aid, while many poorer and less prestigious privates face the possibility of extinction.”

I’d be the last to deny troubling trends within higher education:

  • Misplaced priorities. I worry that too many institutions are losing sight of their primary mission: teaching and learning.
  • Mission creep. There’s nothing wrong with aspiring to move up the academic ladder by increasing research productivity or enhancing facilities. But I’ve seen too many institutions forget that their primary responsibility is to serve their existing student body better.
  • Degraded quality. When colleges and universities enlarge the student-faculty ratio, eliminate breakout sessions and offer asynchronous “self-paced” classes, they are reducing the quality of the education they offer.

But nothing disturbs me more than completion rates that remain inexcusably low. All our talk of equity, diversity and inclusion means nothing if 30 or 40 percent or even more of a college’s students fail to graduate. Those institutions simply haven’t implemented the support structures and pedagogies that will bring those students to success.

Let’s look at several of the Jacobin interviewee’s arguments, beginning with some dismissive comments about academic administrators.

“The current model of the neoliberal university is in part about securing federal student aid, which ultimately students are themselves forced to pay back and be responsible for. It’s about cultivating other revenue streams, whether it be investment funding, direct donations or research and medical revenue. It’s also about erecting a professional superstructure of administrators, who are not from the ranks of the faculty, whose main job and whose training is to run large and extremely complicated institutions, because the management of an institution that depends on so many different kinds of revenue requires somebody who’s trained to administer it.”

Academic administration is an easy target. But the fact is that today’s colleges and universities are enormously complex organizations and the economic engines for their communities and regions. They typically employ thousands of people and provide a kind of soft capitalism, including good benefits and decent work environments, that rarely exists anymore.

Even small schools occupy a central place in a locality, and not just in its economy. Small college towns are rich with cultural and artistic life. Often, these institutions step in when local governments cannot.

Ask anyone: If you could have the equivalent of Harvard Square or Kendall Square in your neighborhood, would you say no?

Then the interview turns to another easy target—Harvard and other elite privates: “Harvard would buy other colleges and then have little Harvards all over the country. You do see some of that. There is this sort of global phenomenon. There is NYU [New York University] Abu Dhabi.”

This is a long-standing argument. I think it would be better to invest in institutions that already exist than have elite institutions try to self-replicate. Most of the elites educate very few people, and most of the work is research, innovation and other outputs. Then, too, most of the university expansions across the globe have utterly failed.

Plus, even doubling the size of Harvard’s first-year class would have minimal impact. Instead, we need to invest in public institutions.

The author goes on, “Then what would the value of saying I went to Harvard be, if everybody gets to go to Harvard?”

What the author doesn’t say is that if you want to take a Harvard class, earn a Harvard certificate or even a degree, the number of opportunities is quite extensive (online and yes, even in person). No, you won’t get a Harvard College–branded diploma; it will come from Harvard Extension. Let’s remember: we aren’t going to fix the class system in this country by expanding access to Harvard. It’s sad but true; American higher ed reflects this country’s class system. If American higher education is to fulfill its democratic promise, it will be up to the nation’s broad-access institutions.

Then the interviewee makes an important point: “There are lots of ways in which even a liberal arts education has become responsive to labor market pressures to graduate with specific skills that can be immediately employed.”

This is an idea that Hogan could have doubled down on. However, we must remember, the job market is highly unpredictable, as coding academies have shown. A broad, flexible liberal education is almost certainly the most reliable way to navigate today’s volatile, uncertain economy. Even degrees in petroleum engineering don’t look as lucrative as they did a few years ago.

Then the interviewee talks about doctoral education: “All faculty, I would argue, have at least some desire to reproduce the things that they love about their discipline, about their profession. They want to train people who are interested in their ideas, who are interested in their work and who are going to carry on their legacy.”

Yes. But the professoriate also believes in knowledge for its own sake, as a public good and as something worth preserving. This is a very tricky subject. There is a moral responsibility to not train students who will never be able to get jobs in higher ed as faculty members. But at the same time, the idea of just shuttering humanities departments is utterly untenable. Part of the answer might well lie in a third way: in more terminal master’s programs, in hybrid administrative and teaching roles, and in a tenured teaching faculty.

The interviewee emphasizes the financial power of elite institutions, saying, “Because when you have $40 billion in the bank, you do whatever you want. You can build your own town; you can start your own campus in some other city or some other country.”

Tell that to any university CFO or government relations professional. Even the wealthiest universities have far less leverage than most think. Just look at institutions in California struggling to build residence halls. Do I think large endowment institutions should spend down more of their capital? Well, yes. Is an economic model that relies on high levels of tuition and debt problematic? Absolutely.

But let’s focus our attention on the places that educate the vast majority of students. The myopia of talking endlessly about elite institutions is tiresome and counterproductive.

Ultimately, we must recognize that most colleges and universities are fairly fragile institutions. They serve important social functions—not simply economic. They are indispensable engines of social mobility. They are flawed; they should be held more accountable.

But that means having a serious conversation about how to best invest in them, how to unburden students and to think comprehensively about colleges’ value and outcomes and to say, “We believe the humanities are worth protecting.”

Let’s not forget: American universities are relatively young. In little more than a century, American universities came to dominate the global stage. Their sheer variety and complexity are uniquely a product of a distinctive American ecosystem. We should take pride in that and ask, how can we collectively fix the system, strengthen it and make it better?

The article forgets that for all their flaws, our colleges and universities really are engines of social mobility.

Which brings me to a second article by the great historian of education Jonathan Zimmerman, one of the most knowledgeable and perceptive commentators on American higher education. It’s entitled “Higher Education’s Founding Promise” and it appears in Washington Monthly.

His perspective differs radically from Hogan’s. In Zimmerman’s words,

“Over the past two and half centuries, the United States has developed the most extensive and diverse system of college and universities in human history. The public goods generated by that system—technical innovation, social mobility and informed citizenship—are beyond dispute.”

Then he turns to the system’s underlying flaw: treating college as a private, not a public, good. As he elaborates,

“Its costs have been borne heavily—and unevenly—by private citizens. We praise it as the basis of shared national prosperity and progress, then we turn around and present students—and their families—with the bill.

“Federal and state intervention opened the college door to millions of Americans, but it failed to inscribe higher education as a truly public good—that is, something anyone can receive, regardless of circumstance or background, precisely because it benefits the nation as a whole. That doesn’t necessarily mean it should be free of cost to students; instead, it means the costs shouldn’t keep some people out and saddle untenable debt on others.”

Zimmerman’s essay offers a brilliantly concise history of the tension between higher ed’s democratic promise and a base reality in which talent is closed off from opportunity by college’s cost: “A nation that claims to value education as the key to personal and collective progress” must subsidize it “so that every American can take advantage of it.”

Zimmerman is well aware of the objections to increased public investment in higher ed. Here’s his response:

  1. Colleges’ supporters must, first, stop condescending toward those without a college education. Otherwise, “they won’t support any new form of government aid to education.”
  2. Next, colleges must convince the public that they care about how much students learn. Faculty and universities alike must demonstrate a greater institutional commitment to undergraduate learning.
  3. Then, too, campuses must end “the arms race that inflates the cost of college”: extravagant presidential and senior administrators’ salaries, fancy facilities, and country club–like amenities.

Zimmerman speaks highly of an idea favored by New America’s Kevin Carey: government might offer “a flat per-student subsidy to any college that agrees to reduce class sizes, enhance instruction and take the other steps that help people succeed.” Or students might “defray tuition by performing national service.”

During the early 20th century, the United States embarked on an extraordinary, truly unprecedented campaign: to take adolescents out of the workforce and make a high school education universal. For 40 years, the country opened a new high school every day. By the 1960s, universal high school education was a reality, and it helped to fuel exceptional economic growth.

During the ’60s, this country began to embrace another new idea: college for all. What an extraordinary and inspiring goal. But as Zimmerman makes clear, as of yet this country hasn’t put in place the supports—financial, pedagogical and institutional—that can bring that ideal to fruition.

College faculty, staff and administrators, acting alone, can’t realize that vision. That will take more money than our colleges have. But we can make progress toward that goal. That will require us to put in place policies and practices that will promote student success. These aren’t a secret. We must:

  • Help every student get off to a good start. Encourage new students to enroll in academic-preparedness programs, bridge programs and boot camps. Provide every new student with a point of contact and a degree plan that is regularly reviewed and updated. Publicize opportunities for new students to bolster their academic self-confidence through mind-set, study skills, time management and test-taking training.
  • Ensure that transfer students feel welcomed. Make vertical transfer more seamless. Evaluate transfer credits quickly. Hold a special orientation for transfer students. Make sure transfer students can enroll in required courses and can participate in research and other special programs.
  • Incentivize full-time enrollment. Enroll as many freshmen as possible in a first-semester 15-credit-hour block of courses. Encourage enrollment in summer and intersession classes to accelerate time to degree.
  • Increase students’ sense of belonging. Place entering students in learning communities, research cohorts, special interest groups and career-focused groupings. Fund faculty engagement opportunities, including student-faculty lunches.
  • Institute corequisite remediation. Don’t relegate students to noncredit remedial classes.
  • Redesign high-DFW courses. Monitor classes or sections that have high DFW rates or performance gaps. Offer supplemental instruction in especially demanding fields of study.
  • Make the class schedule more student friendly. Consider adopting block scheduling, with essential classes available during morning, afternoon or evening slots.
  • Institute wraparound student supports. These should include, at a minimum, tutoring, organized study groups and academic support centers in mathematics, science and writing.
  • Eliminate financial barriers to student success. Consider providing emergency grants and waiving course registration blocks for students making satisfactory academic progress.
  • Promote career readiness. Inform students about labor market trends. Encourage internships. Weave career preparation throughout the undergraduate experience.
  • Make the learning experience more engaging, immersive, active and interactive. Help faculty introduce more inquiry-, problem- and project-based learning and more field, studio, clinical and research experiences.

We can respond to the idea of college for all by reducing the quality of a college education. Through grade inflation and grade compression. Through reduced reading and writing expectations. By instituting more gut courses, faddish majors, climbing walls and lazy rivers. Or, conversely, we can do much more to engage students in more meaningful ways and provide them with the financial, academic and other supports that they need.

The trend, I fear, is toward degrading quality. But the direction of change is ultimately in our hands. A democratic education needn’t be undemanding and overly accommodating. It can and should be challenging, stimulating and inspiring. Let’s take the steps that are essential to realizing that vision.

Steven Mintz is professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin.

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