Our Nation is Once Again At A Turning Point: Let’s Not Miss It

Posted by Maica Pichler on July 13, 2015 at 11:00 AM
We owe much to Andrew Delblanco, a professor of Humanities and Director of American Studies at Columbia University, for his recent article “Our Universities: the Outrageous Reality.” The article, in the July 9, 2015 edition of the New York Review of Books, reviews six recent book releases on higher education. It also includes quite a bit of supplementary scholarship.


Delblanco first reminds us of the development of higher education over the course of American history.  Horace Mann promoted universal education that, in the 19th Century, led first to public universities, then land grant institutions under the Morrill Act, and then the creation of colleges for Blacks and women.  The 20th Century advanced postsecondary access through the G.I. bill (1944), the National Defense Education Act (1958), the Higher Education Act (1965) and the creation of Pell Grants (1972).  As a result of these federal initiatives, the portion of 25-29 year olds with a four-year degree climbed from one in twenty in 1940 to one in four in 1977.
But starting in the 1980s, efforts to expand access began to wane.  The proportion of students from low income families attending higher education in general and prestigious colleges and universities in particular ceased to improve, and in some cases declined.  Prestigious private schools are out of reach for the poor (not because of academic achievement or ability, but due to a lack of financial support and proper counseling); investment in public higher education declined (between 1980 and 2010 the portion of state budgets committed to higher education declined from 8% to 4%).  In both sectors persistent tuition increases have constructed a major barrier to college attendance by the poor, and to some extent, the middle class.
“The story these numbers tell is of a higher education system—public and private—that is reflecting the stratification of our society more than resisting it.”  Further, this stratification is reflected in collegiate graduation rates:  “…graduation rates are the same for low income students with high test scores as for high income students with low test scores.”
Delblanco notes that the institutions themselves bear some of the responsibility for these outcomes.  The excessive pursuit of institutional status, outdated governance arrangements, and a failure to significantly improve instructional efficiency are among the problems cited.
There have been federal attempts to assist students, notably the advent of student loans.  This spawned the explosion in the number of for-profit institutions, some of which made matters worse for poor families, as student debt mounted, both for individuals and for the country as a whole.  The net result has been further inequity in higher education.
Delblanco concisely summarizes the case:  “In short, the United States has a serious structural problem: the cost of college is rising faster than public, institutional, or, for most Americans, personal resources available to meet it.”
The article ends with a mildly optimistic tone, listing recent initiatives by the Obama administration and others: increased use of income-based loan repayment plans, making Pell grants an entitlement, incentives for institutions to improve completion rates, experiments in improved institutional governance, and free community college tuition.
As one of those closely associated with higher education and both its problems and its promise, I find the above analysis compelling.  We may be at a turning point, where this nation once again devotes the requisite attention to continuous improvement in college access as a means of achieving equity for all citizens.  My full support for the Campaign for Free College Tuition—eliminating one of the key barriers to college attendance—is my way of addressing the crisis so ably presented by Professor Delblanco.  I urge you to join in this effort.
David B. Wolf
Executive Director Emeritus
Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges
Western Association of Schools and Colleges

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