Thursday, March 19, 2015

The Misplaced Media Obsession With Elite Universities

My parents both attended Kearney State College, now known as the University of Nebraska-Kearney.  Regional state universities like this rarely factor into our higher ed discourse.

Over the years I've noticed something very strange about our public discourse on higher education, namely that a massively inordinate amount of attention is paid to elite universities.  This is especially the case in high-brow publications like the New York Times, which once had a whole blog dedicated to the college application process.  That same paper will print articles about said process on a regular basis, including a Frank Bruni column last weekend.

Bruni writes as if the phenomenon of parents pushing to get their kids into the Ivy League is much more widespread than it actually is.  At one point he even acknowledges this, but doesn't think the schools that most students attend are worthy of comment.  The vast majority of American college students attend second and third tier state universities or community colleges, but their institutions and what's happening to them rarely make the news.  Those who attend private schools are more likely to matriculate at a small college little known outside of its region than at the likes of Harvard.

These small colleges and non-flagship state schools are currently experiencing a storm of epic proportions.  The recent closing of Sweet Briar, probably the most well known of the recent scores of small colleges that have died, has brought out at least some discussion of the problem.  In states like Wisconsin, Scott Walker has slashed the university budget in a way that is especially nasty for regional universities.  UW-Eau Claire is buying out hundreds of employees, and UW-Rock County is looking at professor layoffs.  The flagships have resources beyond state funding to draw from, and can more safely jack up their tuitions because they are so desirable.  Not so much for regional universities.

When I was a professor, both contingent and tenure track, I taught at regional state universities.  Although I never attended one, my parents did, and their degrees brought them out of the working and into the middle class.  About half of my students at both schools were, like my parents, the first people in their families to go to college.  Despite the presumptions about the supposedly meritocratic nature of our elite universities, my best students would have been the best practically anywhere else.  There is an insanely misbegotten belief that everyone who is capable of getting accepted to a top school applies to them.  Those that think this have no idea of how classism and regionalism work in this country.  When I was in high school the idea of applying to an Ivy never crossed my mind, it would have been as likely for me to go to the moon.  My intuition was that people in places like that would look down on a person like me, and time has not changed that assumption one iota.

I was luckier that others because my parents could financially support my college education.  Many students don't have that option, or have to stay near their parents or even financially support them themselves while still in school.  Others go back to school later in life to get an education.  They don't have the option of packing up and moving to a dorm on some leafy campus in another state.  These students depend upon regional state universities for the opportunity to have a better life.  These same universities are now being gutted and turned into the equivalent of glorified vocational schools. We are going back to the bad old days of higher education, when a true college education was open only to a privileged few.

Here's a challenge to all the pundits and publications out there: start writing about the kinds of schools that most college students attend.  Yes, I know these are the kinds of places you wouldn't dare let your own precious children even apply to less they sully your reputation, but these institutions matter a whole lot more than Harvard does for a person like me.  The parts of our university system that do the most to promote social mobility are under attack, but we spend the majority of our time fixated on those that maintain the elite under the guise of "meritocracy."  It's time to stop doing that.


Terry said...

I agree entirely. I dropped out of my first college (the now-defunct Dana College in Blair, NE) at age 19, went back 7 years later to Iowa Western CC, then on to Northeast Missouri State University - this after diligently studying all the institutions that offered what I wanted, a double major in journalism and biology (narrowed down the field considerably) - finally ended up getting my MA in biology from the U. of Nebraska at Omaha. All well under the radar of those 'elites" you speak of. This was late 70s-early 80s, so before the horrendous fiscal and political mutilation higher ed has been suffering more recently. Yet, guess what, I think I got a very good education. I was the first on BOTH sides of my family ever even to go past high school. I was able to do it because of PELL grants, merit scholarships (Not Merit, but merit), work study, and part time jobs. (This was all as a single mom, too.) Therefore, I was able to have a professional career and now I'm retired (at a level that would be couch change for those 'elites', but I'm happy) after productively paying taxes and all that.

It is sickeningly apparent that the likes of the Koch Bros. only want to return to the good old days of serfs and slaves suffering their stunted lives under the boots of the rich. Their lackeys in state legislatures are only too happy to hack away at the higher ed system. Eventually, I suppose there will have to be a horrible, bloody revolution. Seems that how humanity does things.

Werner Herzog's Bear said...

Thank you very much for the comment, Terry. Glad you mentioned Dana, which is one of the many small liberal arts schools that have gone under in recent years. I don't see any revolution on the horizon though, since the masses have ipods and circuses for their entertainment and distraction. The current distraction process makes old fashioned television look benign by comparison.

Anonymous said...

I am probably preaching to the choir here, but part of the problem with our educational/economic model is that a college degree has increasingly become not only the only means to social mobility, but the first-cut of sorts as to who will lead a successful life. Two or three generations ago, a high school education wasn't only sufficient for most middle class employment in finance, business, ect, it was adequate to be taken seriously as a writer, journalist, artist, or intellectual. Now we have a proliferation of college degrees for what essentially ARE vocations. What's morally problematic about our present and future is that people are/will incur thousands of dollars of debt for a false promise of upward mobility. I actually wouldn't be bothered by less people going to college if they had other viable options, if our situation resembled anything like the Old Economy. Unfortunately, creating (or recreating) this situation would not only require a complete overhaul of our educational system, but our entire culture, our assumptions about higher education and status, and would entail a greater respect for trade and craft.

James W.