Underwater Education

Suzanne Mettler’s The Submerged State: How Invisible Government Policies Undermine American Democracy was quite useful to me when writing The Cult of Individualism: A History of an Enduring American Myth. She’s onto something, arguing (to quote from my book) that the:

startling unwillingness to recognize the support we have received over our lives has had the surprising result of actually driving a good deal of the communitarian efforts of the federal government of the United States–and more–underground: “In the lives of most Americans other than seniors, the impact of visible governance has diminished while that of the submerged state has grown.” Our sense of self-creation has grown so important to many of us that we deliberately fool ourselves as a group in order to maintain it. (21)

Mettler has a new book out this month, Degrees of Inequality: How the Politics of Higher Education Sabotaged the American Dream and a related op-ed piece, “College, the Great Unleveler,” in today’s New York Times. She is still writing about what we hide from ourselves but, this time, what she says should be paid attention to even more closely by those of us who lurch the hallowed hallways of academe. This time, she’s detailing something that we can no longer let remain submerged.

I haven’t read the book, yet. I will (the official release date is still a week or so away). But I did read the op-ed this morning. Mettler ends with this:

Most of us were raised to believe that going to college was the surest path to a better life, but for many today that belief can be perilous. Unless we can claw back polarization and plutocracy enough to restore opportunity in higher education, the United States will become a society in which rank is fixed and our ideal of upward mobility but a memory.

Mettler argues, as do many of us, that higher education in America now creates its own caste system. The elite private, non-profit colleges are at the top, of course. Then come the public colleges and universities. Below them are the for-profits, where the worst problems are for students, especially for those who believe that the “education” they are getting will lead them into the security of the middle class. The problem is that students are taking out “staggering” amounts in loan for tuition. The result?:

Among holders of bachelor’s degrees, 94 percent borrow. They [students at for-profits] take on median debt of $33,000 per student, compared with just $18,000 at the nonprofits and $22,000 at the publics. The for-profit graduates have trouble finding jobs that pay enough to afford their debts, and 23 percent of borrowers default within three years, compared with just 7 percent from nonprofits and 8 percent from publics.

This does not bode well. We have created a problem, here–once again, by our faith in business and not in people, by our attention to the needs of commerce at the expense of community and democracy (a poorly education populace makes democracy a joke). We are turning education–at all levels–into a means of making money instead of invigorating it as a means of creating a stronger society.

Read Mettler’s article.

3 thoughts on “Underwater Education

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  2. The Harkin report detailed many of the abuses at for-profit institutions, and given the dramatic decreases in enrollment at those institutions that occurred, somewhat coincidentally, not long after that report was released, the for-profit “bubble” appears to have very definitively burst.

    What is most ironic, if not surprising, is that the rest of higher ed so over-reacted to the for-profit model that its impact on our institutions has extended well beyond the detailed exposure of that model’s considerable limitations. Almost no one is reconsidering any of the changes that were made, often very hastily, to “meet the challenge” posed by the for-profits.

    Today seems to be my day for making analogies, but this situation in higher ed seems very analogous to the dramatic increase in defense spending in the 1980s, to which the collapse of the Soviet Union is often attributed. Such assertions ignore that, in the 1970s, experts on the Soviet economy had been predicting that it would face a collapse in the 1990s as its oil production, the major source of its foreign-exchange revenue, plateaued. In the 1980s, the Soviet Union’s extended attempt to pacify Afghanistan certainly only escalated the great strains on its economy. So, at most, the dramatic escalation in our defense spending can be said to have had a disproportionately small impact on our “winning” the Cold War. But, even as that became clearer, any second-guessing of that spending was very muted, especially in the “mainstream” media.

    No one wants to do a “do over,” even when it becomes quite evident that if we had understood things more clearly, we might have done things quite differently.

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