Over the years I've noticed a major blind spot in the public discourse on higher education, namely that it rarely touches on the situation in regional state universities. Conversation often turns to elite private universities or the big state flagships, and may shift to community colleges from time to time, but rarely touches on the regional four-year public universities that educate many more students that the Ivy League or the flagships do. These humble institutions, however, have become the most altered by the current forces tearing away at academia, and are in most in danger of completely losing their integrity as institutions of higher learning.
Of all the universities in the country, San Jose State has been the biggest battleground in the wars over MOOCs. Minnesota State University-Moorhead seems poised to eliminate 18 of its academic departments. Schools like SUNY-Albany have made news by destroying their language and fine arts programs. The University of Louisiana at Lafayette no longer has a philosophy major, but it does have a football team. The likes of Michigan, Illinois, and Cal have the resources to weather these storms with their integrity intact, but the Western Illinoises and North Dakota States of the world do not.
Based on my own personal experience, I think that regional state unis are am absolutely crucial element of our higher education system because they, more than any other kinds of four year school, are the bridge for so many people into the middle class. I taught at two different regional state universities, one in Michigan, and one in Texas. Half of the graduates at both of these institutions were the first people in their families with college degrees. Many of them were "non-traditional" students with families and full-time jobs whose education was a path to a better life. Others were just kids from working class families who wanted to save money on their education, since both of these schools charged low tuition, and many of these same students lived nearby with their parents.
There is an insidious assumption that the only reason that students go to institutions like this, which are not selective, is that they are incapable of getting in anywhere else. This assumption helps justify the gutting of humanities and fine arts departments at these schools, since the students are supposedly only really fit for a kind of glorified vocational education, and not in need of the more refined things in life. This assumption is complete and utter bullshit. While I did have a high percentage of students who were ill-prepared for college, there were also a significant number of absolutely stellar students, including a few that I would put up against students from any university in the country, Harvard and Yale included. These people weren't attending second tier state universities because they couldn't get in somewhere with a higher reputation, but because they did not have the financial means or unencumbered family situation to go elsewhere. When I hear about regional universities being gutted and MOOC-ified, I think about the wonderfully smart and driven students I used to teach, and how they are being cheated. I also think about those less prepared students who were trying like hell to improve and get ahead, and how their needs will not be met because it costs less money to turn their education into a series of computer-administered multiple choice tests.
There is a further personal reason why I care about the erosion of our nation's second tier state schools. Back in the late 1960s and 1970s, my parents attended one of these colleges, and were both the first people in their families to get a four-year degree. At the time my father was working multiple jobs, and my mother had elected to stay close to home. That education brought my father out of poverty, got my mother off the farm, and cleared a path for me to have all kinds of opportunities that they didn't. If regional state universities morph into vo-tech to train the proles to pull the digital levers of the new economy, opportunities to build a better life will not be around any longer for a lot of people in this country.