Column Editor: Kent Anderson (Founder, Caldera Publishing Solutions, 290 Turnpike Road, #366, Westborough, MA 01581-2843; Phone: 774-288-9464)
Criticism of higher education in the U.S. posing as a finishing program for elites isn’t new, and the explosion of administrators across college campuses has been observed for years now. (In 2014, administrators officially outnumbered instructors in the U.S. for the first time.)
What used to be an affordable way to gain social mobility has become anything but, and COVID-19 may be the factor that finally causes some strong reforms as the value proposition is reconsidered by parents and students alike.
I was the first person in my family to go to college, and because tuition was so affordable and the state school in town allowed me to commute, I incurred no student debt. Now, tuition at that same institution for an in-state student is 10x higher. Overall, tuition has increased 1,400% over the past few decades. Scott Galloway notes in his critiques of higher education’s current rates and methods1 that higher education would now be unattainable for him, its unattainability reinforcing a de facto caste system:
In August 1982, I took a job installing shelving for $18/hour, as I had been rejected by UCLA and had no other options for college. UCLA admission would have meant I could live at home. On September 19, 1982, I got a call from an empathetic admissions director at UCLA, nine days before classes started. She said they had reviewed my appeal, and despite mediocre grades and SAT scores, they were letting me in, as I was “a son of a single mother and the great state of California” (no joke, her exact words). My mom told me that as the first person from either side of the family to be admitted to college, I could now “do anything.” The upward mobility and economic security afforded me by education has resulted in a meaningful return for the state and the union (jobs created, tens of millions in taxes paid, etc.). It has also resulted in the profound: the resources to help my mom die at home (her wish) and to create a loving and secure environment for my kids.
Higher education is far less affordable, and social mobility has been hindered for years. More troubling, the elite’s bubble may be detaching from society, if it hasn’t detached already, making science and scholarship out of touch in both how it’s practiced and also in how it’s viewed and accepted.
Presumptions and pretensions of elitism pervade many parts of academic and media cultures, including college applications. On a recent Against the Rules podcast with Michael Lewis,2 a teacher in a smaller city decided to help coach a homeless student working two jobs, who had a 4.0 GPA, and who scored a 1260 on her SAT despite taking it “cold” without preparation. As she worked with the student through her college admissions process, the adult was struck by how elitist the questions were:
Columbia asks, “What exhibits, lectures, theatre productions, and concerts have you liked best in the last year?” And I’m tempted to write, “Carmen, at the Metropolitan Opera. … PSYCH! My town doesn’t even have a movie theater.” … Another school asks her what her favorite periodicals, newspapers, and web sites are. She doesn’t have access to a computer except when she does homework on a school computer. She doesn’t get the New Yorker. She’s never traveled outside her town. … I’m looking at these questions, and I’m thinking, “You clearly don’t get it, you don’t understand what it’s like to grow up in a rural town and not have resources like elite Americans do.”
Another story involves a student in a rural area who was accepted to a university in a big city across the country. He and his parents had never flown in the U.S. before, and his struggles with connecting flights and the complexity of airports almost prevented his attendance. Such mundane barriers don’t occur to us, and when we’re told about them, they strike us as quaint. But they exist, they are real, and they can block people from advancing.
In our broadband-enabled metropolitan areas, we often forget that computer access and fast Internet is still a luxury. Even in the relatively prosperous suburbs of Boston, computer and Internet access for K-12 kids has major gaps.
There are layers to such insights we need to contemplate, such as how education has become a “false meritocracy” for many, with the recent college admissions scandals only serving as a cherry of farce atop decades of biased standardized testing rewarding elites, bloated tuition blocking opportunity, corrupt admissions greased by massive donations, and surging and unforgivable student debt.
The expectations of elitism also pervade the job market. Many employers have hard-coded requirements for bachelor’s degrees into their computerized screening of applicants, often for jobs that haven’t historically required them. Some experienced workers, who years ago did these same jobs, and who left to raise families or deal with other life issues, return to find that their experience and abilities don’t count as much as a piece of paper they never needed before — a certification which won’t matter even after they get it.
Sarah Kendzior’s passionate, imperfect, and excellent book about the ongoing corruption of U.S. institutions, Hiding in Plain Sight: The Invention of Donald Trump and the Erosion of America,3 is worth a read. Kendzior, who also wrote The View from Flyover Country: Dispatches from the Forgotten America,4 moved to St. Louis, Missouri, in the early 2000s after stints as an academic in Europe and as a journalist in New York City.
For young professionals, we are seeing a double blow — the 2008-09 Great Recession, and now the COVID-19 economic implosion — upending their early careers, perhaps setting them back forever.5 But the deck was already stacked against them. Kendzior laments what she feels is a lost pathway to a brighter future for many:
When I tell young people how I got [my first journalism job], they respond as if I’m telling them a fairy tale. I was hired after sending someone my résumé through the mail to strangers. I had no connections, no graduate degree, and no summer internships. I had spent my summers working to save money for college, which meant my résumé included positions like “Record Town cashier” and “Dannon water inventory specialist,” a job that consisted of stocking bottled water at supermarkets and did not require the ability to read. But no one cared back then; the era of elite credentialism was still years ahead.
The time Kendzior recounts was just 20 years ago. In that period, in addition to greater consolidation, two major economic upheavals, and skyrocketing costs and pressures around college admissions and degrees, scholarly publishing has become prone to greater implicit geographic workforce elitism. Social mobility had already declined for decades,6 and it seems to be doomed to decline more with these events.
Higher education is going to be transformed by COVID-19 and other events. How do we ensure it’s transformed to be more inclusive? To elevate more lives? To be more relevant? To bring talent forward, even if it’s hidden and in unexpected locations?
We need to ensure we’re attached to reality and the broadest possible version of our society, or the mission of higher education may become irrelevant to millions.
Kent Anderson is the CEO and founder of Caldera Publishing Solutions, editor of “The Geyser,” a past-President of the Society of Scholarly Publishing, and founder of “The Scholarly Kitchen.” He has worked as an executive of a technology startup and as a publishing executive at numerous non-profits, including the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), the Massachusetts Medical Society, and the American Academy of Pediatrics.