Pundits on both sides of the aisle continue to debate the merits of President Biden’s plans to cancel student debt. But no matter which side of the debate you’re on, it’s hard to argue that canceling up to $20,000 of student debt won’t solve the entrenched problems of the debt and tuition crisis. of higher education.
Student debt is a symptom of a philosophical shift in the purpose of higher education that began decades ago, in the 1960s. As journalist Will Bunch explains in his new book, After the Falls of the Ivory Tower (HarperCollins), Ronald Reagan’s election as governor of California in 1966 marked the end of the golden age of higher education in postwar America, fueled by the GI Bill and the rapid expansion of our higher education system. At that time, higher education was radically affordable, and in Reagan’s California state, free public higher education for state residents was a promise.
Reagan worked tirelessly during his tenure as governor to end free public higher education: Bunch notes that while University of California lobbyists were successful in rebuffing his plan to impose tuition fees, Reagan “is got creative” and lobbied for “ever higher” student fees. , at the time he left office, “poked fun at the state’s no-schooling pledge.” He also succeeded in changing the way his constituents thought about higher education when he announced in 1967 that “taxpayers should not subsidize intellectual curiosity” – the exact opposite of the post-war philosophy according to that higher education was a public good that benefited our country as a whole. , even for those who have never participated.
The rest of America quickly embraced Reagan’s views, as tuition fees rose and the federal government passed legislation to expand student loan eligibility and limits. We are now witnessing a $1.7 trillion student debt crisis and exorbitant tuition fees, both of which are the direct result of our shift in philosophy about the purpose of higher education.
The cost of college today is economically too high, but there is another, albeit less tangible, cost of today’s high tuition fees: the loss of intellectual curiosity. By approaching higher education primarily as a means of pursuing large-scale vocational training, for which students should be responsible for paying the bulk of the costs, we have succeeded in smothering the notion of learning for the sake of learning and making that unaffordable for most. Instead, learning must be linked to tangible economic results; if this is not the case, the student has not obtained a “return on investment”.
We see the consequences of killing intellectual curiosity everywhere in our higher education system today: The suppression of programs in liberal arts disciplines. Graduation. The booming college prep industry and the manipulation of college rankings.
And, to be honest, most of these results are rational reactions to the kind of higher education system that was designed to train employees rather than develop intellectually curious, innovative, and free thinkers. If a student has to pay tens of thousands of dollars to attend college, you better believe they will do what they can to get into the highest ranked college possible and demand that they get a job with a salary high enough to pay off debt after they graduate, allowing them to get the best return on their investment. If employers continue to require college degrees for entry-level jobs that didn’t previously require them, you better believe students will do what they need to get the required credentials quickly and cheaply. by the employer.
Higher education is making every effort to solve its problems. However, many solutions further reinforce the job-training model of higher education. For example, the Third Way think tank disputes American News‘ rankings by ranking of institutions on economic mobility. It is useful for students to know which institutions will give them the best return on investment, but such a solution still calms the system. Similarly, forbearance and loan cancellation are just band-aids for the tuition crisis. Without radical investment to increase federal funding and reduce tuition fees, the solution does not encourage institutions to change. And the rise of non-degree pathways to give people the qualifications they need to get hired only reinforces the philosophy of higher education as vocational training.
The real cost of college today exceeds trillions of dollars in student loans; it is what we have stolen from our students and from our society. Our country’s narrow focus on the professional training philosophy of higher education denies students equal opportunity to pursue intellectual curiosity, free thinking, and learning for the sake of learning. And it deprives our society of the cultural and intellectual diversity brought by these students, and of the potential innovations produced by curious free thinkers. Instead, we have a philosophy of higher education that has burdened students with insurmountable debt and contributed to our country’s continuing class inequality and political divide.
The solution is nothing less than a 180-degree philosophical shift to view higher education as a public good – a worthwhile investment as a country in educating our citizens and producing curious, innovative, and free thinkers. As John Warner explains in Sustainable. Resilient. Free. (Belt Publishing, 2020), we must invest radically in public higher education to bring costs as close as possible to zero and refocus our institutions on the training of students. We must change the incentive structure of college operations to encourage liberal education, teaching excellence, and intellectual curiosity. This is the only way out of the cost crisis in which we find ourselves.
The student debt crisis will not be resolved without a shift to higher education as a public good where, yes, taxpayers actually subsidize intellectual curiosity. The costs are too high if we don’t.