Delbanco: Outrageous Reality

Andrew Delbanco, writing in The New York Review of Books, looks over the state of American universities, noting the promise they once represented but writing that:

Today this story is stalled. At the top of the prestige pyramid, in highly selective colleges like those of the Ivy League, students from the bottom income quartile in our society make up around 5 percent of the enrollments. This meager figure is often explained as the consequence of a regrettable reality: qualified students from disadvantaged backgrounds simply do not exist in significant numbers. But it’s not so.

Delbanco details some of the changing numbers of higher education then tells us:

The story these numbers tell is of a higher education system—public and private—that is reflecting the stratification of our society more than resisting it. Those students who do get to college are distributed, like airline passengers, into distinct classes of service, but with incomparably larger and lingering effects. In 2010, private nonprofit universities, whose students tend to be relatively affluent, spent on average nearly $50,000 per student—with the wealthiest colleges spending nearly double that amount. At public four-year institutions expenditure per student was $36,000, while community colleges, where minority and first-generation students are concentrated and which stress vocational training and offer associate rather than bachelor degrees, could spend just $12,000 per student.

Later, he claims:

Colleges and universities cannot be expected to solve America’s problems of inequity. They cannot repair broken families, or make up for learning deficits incurred early in childhood, or “level the playing field” for students with inadequate preparation. But they should be expected to try to mitigate these problems rather than worsen them—and one main reason they are failing to do so is their relentlessly rising cost.

He concludes:

Perhaps concern for the poor has shriveled not only among policymakers but in the broader public. Perhaps in our time of focus on the wealthy elite and the shrinking middle class, there is a diminished general will to regard poor Americans as worthy of what are sometimes called “the blessings of American life”—among which the right to education has always been high if not paramount.

This is an excellent, if dispiriting, review article. Here, once more, is the link to it.

2 thoughts on “Delbanco: Outrageous Reality

  1. With regard to increases in costs, Delbanco writes, “A deeper cause is the dual purpose of universities — to create new knowledge while transmitting what is already known. New fields of inquiry arise (pursued in new departments by new faculty), while old fields are rarely relinquished — at least not at the same pace. Thus costs almost always grow faster than savings.”

    These claims, which are presented without footnotes or supporting data, are highly questionable. Is it the case that, especially in the last decade or so, that new departments have been created and new faculty have been hired to staff them? My personal observations do not support this claim. When it comes to “old fields”, what does Delbanco have in mind? Physics? Classics? With regard to the dual purpose of universities, is it the case that costs at universities have increased at a higher rate than costs at four-year institutions that focus on instruction?

    My concern with these claims is that they suggest that cost increases are rooted in core missions of higher education, namely research and teaching, for which faculty members have the greatest responsibility.

  2. I don’t think the figures on spending on students are enough. One needs to look at how the money is spent and whether it is useful.

    My basic feeling about the U.S. is that it is run by a free market ideology that facilitates corruption and does not value socially useful functions such as affordable education. medical care, or housing or maintaining and building infrastructure or having a clean and healthy environment. At some point our economy will crash.

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