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Higher Education and the American Dream

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Marvin Lazerson

Introduction: Houses, Automobiles, and Higher Education

Marvin Lazerson

Texte intégral

See the USA in your Chevrolet
America is asking you to call
Drive your Chevrolet through the USA
America’s the greatest land of all
(Sung by Dinah Shore in a 1952 television advertisement)

1The university has eliminated more than 500 jobs, including deans, department chairmen and hundreds of teaching assistants. Last month Mr. Crow [the university president] announced that the university would close 48 programs, cap enrollment and move up the freshman application deadline by five months. Every employee, from Mr. Crow down, will have 10–15 days unpaid furlough this spring.

2(New York Times, March 17, 2009)

3This is a story of success, unbelievable success, and of the discontents that came with it. Higher education in the United States has been the victim of its own success. As it became the only route to an increasing number of professions and the primary path to economic success, it generated higher and higher expectations, an enormous expansion of enrollments, and money. With these, came discontent and disappointments.

4During the last half of the 20th century higher education in the United States triumphed. Few industries grew as fast, or gained such prestige, or affected the lives of so many people. Higher education received remarkable sums of money from federal, state, and local governments. Alumni and foundations gave generously to it. Families reached into their savings, postponed purchases, and went into debt so that their children could go to college. Higher education, even more than elementary and secondary schools, simultaneously embodied both a public good and a private benefit. It served public purposes beneficial to the nation’s economy, protected the national defense, opened up new avenues of knowledge, developed new technologies, and made palpable the goal of equality of educational opportunity. It provided extraordinary private benefits such that individuals who possessed it improved their access to higher income, status, and security. Along with purchasing a house and buying a new automobile, it was a pillar of the American dream.

5For me that dream was real. In 1948 my parents, grandfather, baby sister and I moved from a crowded apartment in New York City to a one-square-mile unincorporated village called Carle Place on Long Island, just outside the city. Our house was built by William Levitt, who took advantage of new technologies and factory-like production processes and guaranteed loans to builders given by the Federal Housing Administration, and low-interest mortgages provided by the Veterans Administration, to create inexpensive tract housing for people like my parents. Although such housing, spreading across the American landscape, would be lampooned—called “little boxes” filled with oppressively conformist people in the song made famous by folksinger Pete Seeger—the critics missed the essential point. Having one’s own house was a dream come true.

6Levitt also made clear how intertwined the country’s automobile industry was to the housing industry, once comparing himself to General Motors. The connection was reaffirmed by the New York Times (February 6, 1994) in an article entitled, “How William Levitt Helped to Fulfill the American Dream,” suggesting that Henry Ford and William Levitt were part of an American package. Such esoteric understandings were not a feature of my parents’ repertoire, and I was too young to realize the cultural significance. But I did recognize that something special had happened when my father arrived home one day in the mid-1950s in a brand new, two-tone Oldsmobile, a car which became my parents’ most prized possession and the one which I drove on my first high school dates. Federally financed highways, low cost gasoline, and technological innovations combined with federally financed home building, low interest mortgages, and new technologies to give my family two of the pillars of the American Dream.

7If the house and automobile were the first signs of a dream come true, they soon gave way to the greatest aspiration of all: sending the kids to college. Although I recognized that my mother’s return to the labor market while I was in high school had something to do with our education, I never quite understood how my parents could send my sister, Shelly, and I to private universities in New York and Boston. To this day, it remains a mystery how they did it, but I knew that their dream, to say nothing of my sister’s and mine, was our higher education. Houses and automobiles could come and go; a college degree was permanent, and a statement: Our family had made it in America.

8By the time I went to college, Brown v. Board of Education (1954) had been decided, the civil rights movement was underway and I recognized what millions of African Americans had always known— the American Dream was considerably less real for some than for others; housing, automobiles, and higher education were inequitably distributed. Many got them, but many were also being denied them. The civil rights movement took aim at each of those. As the Great Society took shape in the late 1960s, the broad sweep of the movement continued, but it was also clear that education had become the central focus. Whatever could be done to correct inequities was appropriate, but over time public policy came to focus on the education pillar of the American Dream, a phenomenon that would be reinforced by the women’s movement.

9By the last decades of the 20th century higher education had achieved a virtual monopoly on middle class and professional status. Universities and colleges became the licensing agency for Americans who wanted to enter the professions. Every occupation sought to increase its prestige and income by making a college degree (and beyond) the requirement for entry. For countless Americans, going to college was the route upward and they expected their governments at every level to help make that happen, especially through grants and loans to students, branch campuses of the state university, and through local community colleges. Even when growing income returns to higher education slowed or plateaued during the 1970s and 1980s and the costs of attending college escalated, going to college remained the dream. As the job market for those without college deteriorated into dead end jobs at fast food franchises, continuing one’s education became a necessity to keep from losing out in the economic race. Families and students, in increasing numbers older students, dug into their savings and took out loans in order to attend.

10Higher education, however, became a victim of its own success, bringing criticism, controversy, and doubt. The seemingly unstoppable demand to attend college and university, the availability of government and private money to do so, and the desire within every state and local community to have its own college or university, made it easy for higher education to charge what the traffic would bear. By the 1980s, those costs so substantially outpaced inflation and the growth rate of median family income that higher education looked like yet another greedy industry. The 1990s brought renewed inflows of money and an ideology of being more market-oriented, becoming in effect like the other industries in America, leading to the view that things would just keep on getting better and better. Institutions with endowments and large sums of money could invest and receive double-digit returns; institutions with little in the way of surplus income simply acted as if they too would join the league of the rich, if only they had the right investment advisor. It was just going to get better and better. The dot-com bubble burst around 2000, but memories of the bust dimmed quickly, until 2008 and 2009 arrived with devastating financial consequences. It turned out that the higher education industry was in fact little different than the housing and automobile industries. The same ethos that had fueled housing and large automobiles had also fueled higher education.

11Higher education’s emergence as a giant industry affected almost every aspect of its organizational structures, including its professors. In the decades after World War II professors gained enormous public stature and a presence once barely imaginable. The stereotypes of absentminded, befuddled professors disappeared, replaced by a growing number of government advisors, policy analysts, and corporation consultants, writing best selling books, newspaper articles and regularly appearing as public intellectuals on television. An academic revolution occurred, to use Christopher Jencks and David Riesman’s term (1968), with professors gaining authority over hiring and promotion, curriculum and teaching, and, for those who brought in external funds for research, becoming free agents in the job market. The canons of shared governance, which held until the 1980s, meant that faculty members made things happen. Professors attached their primary allegiances to the academic disciplines; success at gaining funding for their research became the route to stature and power. Once primarily responsible for teaching undergraduate survey courses, general education, and relatively simple versions of their academic disciplines, professors at the highest status institutions made graduate education their primary interest.

12These changes occurred neither everywhere nor to the same degree. Research and external funding played a lesser role outside research universities. At liberal arts colleges, at the comprehensive state universities that were not centers of research, and at the growing number of community colleges, undergraduate teaching remained the primary responsibility. Occasionally long-reigning autocratic presidents could run roughshod over faculty, and public officials could certainly make life difficult. Still, in comparison to the past, the new authority of the professoriate and their academic disciplines set the terms of status, power, and identity. Rarely did professors call themselves teachers. They were physicists, historians, linguists, and economists. Administrators everywhere routinely articulated the basic principle of the academic revolution: the faculty was the heart of the institution.

13That is, until the 1980s when such words had a hollow ring, for by then a new ethos of higher education had established itself, one that grew evermore exaggerated and powerful—the ethos of the market. Although a market orientation, the selling and buying of higher education and its products, had always existed—19th century college presidents, for example, regularly did the rounds seeking funds and students and the curriculum was always being adjusted to attract students—the market as the compelling force took on a whole new gravitas at the end of the 20th century. And with it, an enormous shift in the balance of power in higher education occurred. Institutional managers proliferated and grew more powerful. They became the primary institutional sellers, were responsible for managing the extraordinary amounts of money that flowed into higher education, set the terms for campus growth, and handled human resources and public relations. Governing boards took on more power. Since most board members came from the world of money, at least the most influential of them, they understood the most important attributes of the market and thus possessed the most important knowledge. Students brought two basic ingredients to the mix: money and brains. Their ever increasing tuition payments balanced budgets; their brains brought prestige, as the relationship between entering students SAT scores and graduation rates attested to a given school’s institutional ranking. In return students expected to be treated as well-served customers and assumed that their degrees would be valuable when they entered the labor market. Faculty, once the most important decisions makers, lost power. They held onto things like faculty appointments, but the truly big decisions, like where institutional resources would go, whether to biology or history or to a newcomer like public policy, or to student services or graduate student fellowships, were not faculty-made decisions. And, as the proportion of part-time instructors grew, so too did the divisiveness within faculty ranks.

14The professoriate’s success in making research the mark of status meant their connection to teaching withered. As they became prominent advisors and consultants, they became caught up in political conflicts, as in the role of the “best and the brightest” during the Vietnam War, in the contestations over civil rights, and in their prominence in the federal government. As the costs of college increased, as downsizing and restructuring hit American industry, and as public subsidies came under fire, professors’ responsibilities came into question. The academic freedom professors had gained became caught up in the snares of political correctness and the entitlements of tenure. Could they really never be fired? Did they only teach 12 hours a week? Questions like these were the public face of growing discontent. The academic disciplines themselves, which had been the heart of the academy, came to look like walls against new approaches to learning; the power of academic departments seemed to serve mainly to undermine decisions taken in the interest of the college or university as a whole. A widespread joke with much truth attached to it circulated: The faculty voted 75 percent to 25 percent for the reform measure, so it failed. Professors could easily be lampooned for always standing against change. The mega size of the higher education industry and the high expectations that surrounded it made higher education an easy target for media and political criticism.

15As the 21st century began, higher education looked like other powerful industries. There was indeed a remarkable resemblance between higher education and the U.S. automobile industry. The latter had achieved an importance in post World War II America based on its technical superiority, astute marketing, diligence in providing customers what they thought they wanted—large and powerful autos with numerous models and sleek looking designs— regularly adding new essentials, whether power windows, V8 engines, air conditioning, mini-vans, four-wheel drive, SUVs, and always more room for the family. Like the higher education industry, it sold itself as a pillar of the American dream.

16There were of course discontents, irritants directed toward the automobile industry. Small and better made cars from Japan emerged as threatening competitors. U.S. auto makers countered with a few small cars of their own, but the fact was small cars were not big money makers, and therefore never really taken seriously. Ralph Nader, a harsh critic, threatened the industry when he discovered that General Motors’ Corvair, with its rear engine, would upend while driving, but the Corvair quickly disappeared from the market and Nader was relabeled as a nut. Sporadic government efforts to require more fuel-efficient cars were easily beaten back or watered down. Sure Chrysler needed a government bailout, but that was a minor investment next to the decades-long federal subsidies of the highway system (and neglect of mass transit), and besides the cost of gasoline remained low.

17The higher education industry manifested many of the same characteristics. A barely noticeable industry before World War II, higher education emerged as an American success story, widely admired—though little understood—around the world. Like the automobile industry, it showed itself remarkably deft at marketing and at continually adding new institutions, new programs, and new facilities. When the proportion of college age youth in the population dropped in the early 1980s, leading to dire warnings about the future of higher education, the problem was quickly resolved, as greater proportions of young people elected to go to college (purchase the product and invest in the future) and a whole new market— adult learners and lifelong learning—was created. If new automobiles represented an immediate statement about the American dream, going to college and beyond was an investment in the dream.

18As with the automobile industry, higher education had its discontents. Conservatives condemned the civil rights and anti-Vietnam War demonstrations on college campuses during the 1960s and 1970s. Then Governor of California Ronald Reagan used this souring mood toward higher education to reduce the University of California at Berkeley, perhaps the greatest public university the U.S. has ever had, to a shadow of its former self. Affirmative action programs, which opened places to women and minorities became targets of attack, claiming they badly lowered the quality of students and faculty, as well as being discriminatory of white males. The federal government changed its financial aid policy from grants to student loans, making it harder for those of modest means to attend. Always there was worry that for all the opportunities provided by colleges and universities, too much of higher education replicated existing social class structures. But while these and other irritants made the situation more difficult for higher education, as similar ones did for the automobile industry, they did not alter the fundamental fact that students kept coming in search of the American dream.

19In the first decade of the 21st century the automobile industry collapsed, along with the housing market, two of the pillars of success in America. The weight of their failures simply became too great: greed, callous indifference to the environment, and a failure to take foreign competition seriously, combining with the virtual disappearance of easy credit. The higher education system did not collapse, but it faced complaints similar to those of the automobile industry: chastised for offering overpriced, poor-quality products, poor services, inefficient and bureaucratic, unwilling to adapt to new markets, technologically backward, administratively bloated, uninterested in teaching, and more concerned with frills than the core product. The automobile industry may indeed remake itself; Americans have a way of doing that. General Motors claims to be reinventing itself, by being slimmer, more focused on quality, and committed to the environment. The jury will be out for some time. The higher education industry is also in the throes of trying to remake itself. When endowments at the richest universities dropped by 25–30% and gifts declined, the costs of business as usual became too great. All the obvious steps took place: cutting staff and programs, canceling capital investments and delaying maintenance projects, renegotiating debt, holding back increases in salaries and financial aid packages. Such cuts were actually the simplest part and there was little choice. As the financial crisis worked its way through, money has come back into the system. The after shocks remain, however. Deferred maintenance has crippling consequences because the costs tend to escalate over time. The shift to part-time faculty, already underway during the last two decades, is accelerating, and almost no one knows what will be the consequences. The use of cost/profit measurements to decide what should be offered as education or what kind of research should be done, already commonplace by the 1990s, is even more intense, just as equity concerns seem to be diminishing. It is clear that competition within and conflict over higher education is increasing. The fact that more than 45 percent of entering college students fail to graduate, with even higher percentages of minority students and students from low income families, is disheartening. That students are learning much less than they ought is troubling. Technology has made all forms of education less place-bound and more borderless, leading to enormous insecurity as to what the industry is about and even where it is located. If no one really understands where the internet is, then what will happen when educational institutions are simply on the web? Vocationally- and professionally-oriented adult learners have become essential customers of higher education, perhaps even more so than the once traditional age group of 17–22 year-olds, with consequences only beginning to be grasped. The returns to higher education remain high, so the desire to attend will continue, meaning that the selling and buying of higher education is going to intensify. The discontents, however, are not going away.

Auteur

Rottach-Egern, Germany–Budapest, Hungary

© Central European University Press, 2010

Conditions d’utilisation : http://www.openedition.org/6540