September 18, 2014
By Goldie Blumenstyk
College is often seen as central to the American Dream, a pathway to upward mobility for rich and poor alike. But the numbers show higher education is a road taken far more often by the haves than the have-nots.
Many Chronicle readers know that, of course, as did I, as a reporter who has covered enrollment and other higher-education issues for more than 25 years. But even I was taken aback when I saw the precise figures: In the United States today, a person from an upper-income family is nearly nine times as likely to have earned a bachelor’s degree by age 24 than is someone from a poor family, according to the Pell Institute for the Study of Opportunity in Higher Education.
The size of that gap sticks with me still—a simple and stark reminder of the failings of a higher-education system that spends hundreds of billions of dollars in public and private money annually, aiming to be a meritocracy.
Last year Oxford University Press invited me to write a primer-style book about the “crisis” in higher education. At first I even flinched at the word, resisting it as simplistic and symptomatic of all the doomsday hype I was reading and hearing about the college “bubble” and the impending shakeout in the postsecondary-education landscape.
But as I dug into the data, I concluded that the crisis was very real: The combination of rising costs, mounting student debt, uncertainty of state support for public colleges, and increasingly fragile business models at many private institutions can’t be dismissed. And even if college leaders are inclined to brush off such issues, a restive reform movement, with growing political and financial clout, isn’t going to let them. The reformers want the enterprise to spend less, show better results, and become more open to new kinds of educational providers.
A crisis in higher education, however, isn’t necessarily fatal—or unprecedented. Just consider the work of Earl F. Cheit, a scholar who died last month. His 1970 report, “The New Depression in Higher Education,” raised alarms about the financial viability of more than half of all colleges in the late 1960s. Most of the institutions he listed as endangered weathered that and subsequent crises.
And there’s evidence of evolution already taking place at many campuses across the country, and the knowledge that while some colleges are in dire straits right now, many are not.
I honestly didn’t expect to be surprised as often as I was during the 18 months of research for the book, American Higher Education in Crisis? What Everyone Needs to Know. Here is what struck me most:
1. Higher education has become highly stratified.
2. The many hidden costs of intercollegiate athletics often go unscrutinized.
3. Higher-education data are often lacking.
4. All is not lost.