Higher Education in the Bull’s Eye

2007 may be remembered as the year that Higher Education became America’s favorite target.  First the Spellings Report bemoaned higher ed’s many — real and imagined — failures.  Then with the poltically ambitious Andrew Cuomo of New York leading the charge, attorneys general around the nation zeroed in on student loans, targeting and extracting settlements from many of the nation’s top universities and ending a number of distinguished student-financial-aid officers’ careers.  Next came news of the indictment of a dean of students in connection with the alcohol-related death of a student.

Why all this negative attention on higher education?  Here’s one man’s opinion.  Several significant forces are at work:

  • Globalization has stripped Americans of most high-paying manufacturing jobs and reduced millions to scratching out a living in the lower end of the service sector.
  • Government is no longer interested in providing, or able to belly up and provide, such safety nets as welfare payments, health coverage, and job protections.
  • Labor Unions, which once represented one private sector employee in three, now claims the loyalty of less than 10 % of the private sector workforce.

In short, the three prongs of the economic covenant which J.K. Galbraith in The New Industrial State once identified as the core of America’s great prosperity and economic security in the 1950s and 1960s — Big Business, Big Gvoernment and Big Labor — have all abrogated, whether willingly or not, their post-WWII roles.

Left to shoulder their burdens is higher education.  From President Bush on down, our leaders point to education as the American worker’s salvation.  It falls to higher education to insure that Americans remain competitive and therefore prosperous.

The American people have responded, developing a consumer mentality.  They want practical educations and they want them cheaply and quickly.  This is a tall order for higher education… one that many institutions — perhaps most colleges and universities… are unable to consistently deliver.  Perhaps this is because no educations system, no matter how good, can fill the vacuum left by the Big Three of Galbraith’s 1968 book.

Unable to meet unrealistic expectations, universities are being targeted by opportunistic public prosecutors, helicopter parents, and others who want so much more than can realistically be delivered.

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