The unfortunate commodification of higher education

The return on investment of higher education is under increased scrutiny today. This has led to a narrowed emphasis by colleges and universities on providing marketable skills that lead directly to jobs. Andrew Delbanco, in his 2012 book, College: What It Was, Is, and Should Be, suggests a broader set of qualities for colleges, however, beyond technical and vocational competencies. At the same time, we’ve experienced increasing economic inequality and a coarsening of our political discourse in the United States, so the diminishment of a “college” education as Delbanco describes it has profound implications for democracy.

Delbanco suggests five qualities that a college should strive to have. These qualities should develop a student’s mind in a comprehensive way, and they echo the expectations of the founders of colonial colleges such as Thomas Jefferson, who hoped that their students would become thoughtful members of society and informed citizens. Delbanco suggests that colleges “should provide guidance, but not coercion, for students trying to cross that treacherous terrain on their way toward self-knowledge,” and that “[i]t is absurd to imagine [these qualities] as commodities to be purchased by and delivered to student consumers.”

The idea that a student should gain “a willingness to imagine experience from perspectives other than one’s own” and “a sense of ethical responsibility” has value not just to that student but to society at large. In the mid-19th century – another period of significant political upheaval – a remarkable number of college graduates were part of the abolitionist movement, nearly 80 percent in one sample, while only two percent of the general population had a college education.

When agriculture and basic trades dominated the economy (and could be taught by becoming an apprentice to a master artisan or working on a family farm), the focus of a college was on broad subjects of study, such as classical languages, religion, mathematics, and general science. The rapid growth in human knowledge, accompanied by growth in student numbers, particularly after the Civil War, led to many more curricular options for students, and powered the rise of the university. By 1885, when Charles William Eliot and James McCosh had their great debate over the “New Departure” – where students could create their own path to a degree by selecting from electives – there were already many courses of study to choose from. So many, in the opinion of McCosh, that he “had some difficulty in understanding [Harvard’s] catalogue. I would rather study the whole Cosmos.” Today, he could have done just that, but he would likely find it much more difficult to get the sort of “college” education described by Delbanco.

Our current emphasis on whether college is “worth it” is understandable considering rising costs of attendance, which have been significant in the last 30 years. The value of a degree is apparent, however, in terms of a student’s potential future earnings. On average, the difference in income between someone with only a high school education and another with a bachelor’s degree is nearly one million dollars over their lifetimes. Meanwhile, financial support for lower-income students, who would be expected to benefit financially from higher education, hasn’t kept pace with rising costs. In 1976 a Pell Grant covered about 90 percent of the average cost of attendance at a public university, but in 2004 it covered less than 25 percent. And the competition to obtain a favorable ranking in the annual U.S. News listings has led to admissions practices at elite and top-tier public universities that tend to reinforce the type of higher-income student who has had numerous advantages in preparing to get over the hurdles required to get in. As Delbanco notes, “What’s beyond dispute is that the practices… are heavily weighted in favor of students from families with means.”

In the eight years since the publication of College, there have been remarkable changes in American politics. Delbanco seems to have somewhat anticipated the chasm that has grown between rival factions that often no longer seem capable of compromise. He notes that “as our society divides more and more between those with ‘advantages’ (our euphemism for money) and those without, the two camps know less and less about each other.” The ability to “imagine experience from perspectives other than one’s own” and having “a sense of ethical responsibility” would serve us well today. Do we have the ability – or even the collective desire – to offer our students that type of education?