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Only about half of Yale’s graduating PhD students were finding jobs in higher education before the financial collapse, says a Yale professor in a compelling article in  The Nation called “Faulty Towers” about the problems in higher education today.   Chris Newfield has commented in his excellent book Unmaking the Public University (2008) that that level of unemployment is unacceptable when talking about inner city high school drop outs.  Why do we accept it as the status quo for doctoral students?  There is something terribly wrong with the structure of higher education in America today, and this Nation article by William Deresiewicz does a good job of pointing fingers in Nasome of the right places.  You can find his piece here:…

I like putting the problem in the context of a larger social perspective.  The last time in American history when taxes were this low and when there was a very large gap (though not even close to present) between rich and poor was 1958, when only about 11% of Americans had college educations; now it is over 20%. And our universities are geared to that number and to an aspiration towards being a middle class society.   We now rank with Iran and Russia for having the highest gap between our richest and poorest citizens and a squeezed out middle class means the end of higher education as we have known it for the last 40 years.     Do the math.   You cannot support a 20%+ higher education rate without a middle class and without taxes to support public education.  It does not add up.


The growth of higher education that began in the late 1960 was an expansion, just as the middle class was expanded, facilitated by the GI Bill and the growth of the state university system and the movement away from manufacturing to business.  At the same time, as Richard Florida really spoke to eloquently at Milken Institute conference “Shaping the Future” last week, the unionization of manufacturing laborers after World War I made it possible for laborers to be middle class and to aspire to have children who went to college to become professionalsy.   Americans voted for education taxes for that purpose, to support a system of higher education from which their children (and the whole country) could benefit.
Richard Florida sees service jobs having replaced manufacturing in our society, but the living wages paid to workers in the manufacturing sector have never been equaled by workers in the service industry.   Florida insists that we have to change that if we are going to become a middle-class society again, something he sees as a greater good for all of society, not just the working and middle class.  He insists that, as a society, we have to find ways that service jobs can be remunerated in the same way that manufacturing was so that the gap of richer and poor can close again and service workers can aspire to send their kids to college, an offshoot of which is a civil society with greater arts, and better science too.
I agree completely.  The problem in higher ed is twofold.  One, it has not transformed itself for the digital workplace, but that’s as would be expected.  It took at least fifteen years into the second industrial revolution of the late nineteenth century before the medieval university was transformed into the modern research university and, with the commercialization of the internet in 1995, we’re right on time to address that radical reformation today.   But, second, there won’t be transformation in higher education without a revaluation of present values.  The current chasm between rich and poor began to develop, around 1985, just as this generation of graduating college seniors was born. The consequence is what this generation of students has inherited.
Interestingly, at the Milken Institute conference, even some extremely prosperous CEO’s expressed fear of the radically increased gap between rich and poor.  This extreme bifurcation of rich and poor has to be bad, they suggested, for future business and for the common good of the nation.  It is bad for consumption but also just bad for business not to have a very large class of educated, middle-class people invested in the prosperity and growth of the nation.  You cannot think purposively ahead when you are worrying about feeding your kids.   They pointed to Brazil’s rising stature in the world and correlated that rise explicitly to the narrowing of the gap between rich and poor in that nation and the development of an increasingly energetic and educated middle class.  Some business leaders spoke from altruism, others just from good business sense, and most spoke from an ideology that combined both:  a radically split economy, without a productive and consumerist middle-class, cannot sustain a future America that is anything like the one idealistically envisioned by “the Greatest Generation” for their offspring.  (If you don’t think the current crisis in higher education is alarming considering what is happening right now, today, in the UK: politicians are seriously debating whether universities there should be  allowed to recruit unlimited numbers of UK undergraduates “who are able pay their tuition fees upfront under plans being considered by the coalition government.”   Isn’t that called buying an education, not earning one?)
If the US now ranks with Russia and Iran as nations with greatest difference between its richest and poorest occupants, what does that mean for the future of American culture and values?  Those are the key questions.   It all goes together.   And, returning to the Nation article, it is incumbent on all of us–all of us in academe, in all fields, and all of us who are simply interested in the future of education and the future of our world–to work together towards rectifying increasing inequalities before they engulf us all.





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Cathy N. Davidson

Cathy N. Davidson

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