Classier Colleges

May 18, 2014

College graduations are in full bloom this week. Several recent issues of the New York Times have featured articles on higher education, and the news is hardly reassuring for parents who will be sending their precious offspring to a university in the near future. The crisis that those of us who teach at public universities knew to be real has now attracted media attention. In fact, there seem to be several issues driving a debate on how to keep education affordable and useful.

High tuition, cutthroat competition for places at top-flight colleges, pressure to score higher on standardized tests, and various other challenges now confront America’s brightest high school students as they consider their options for a college degree. My generation, the Baby Boomers, faced similar challenges 40 years ago. What we did not face was a class-based hierarchy of universities that excluded worthy candidates based solely upon their family’s income.

While most elite universities continue to boast of their inclusiveness and diversity, statistics are now proving that college education is rapidly becoming a privilege that only the wealthiest students can depend upon as a ticket to success. Upward mobility in America is now largely a myth because the bottom two thirds of our population are being denied a chance at a four-year college degree. It turns out that 40% of minority students who choose to attend college either cannot graduate in less than 6 years (with enormous debt on their young shoulders), or must settle for a two year associate degree at a low tier school.

Frank Bruni, reviewing a new feature film called “Ivory Tower” in the Sunday Review Section, likened education at an elite university like Harvard or Columbia to driving a Porsche sports car. In this film, soon to be released, viewers will be looking through the showroom windows at a luxury car dealership, dreaming of driving a sleek, beautiful automobile on a country road in May. 98% of them won’t be classy enough to own such a car, and their children won’t be classy enough to put on a cap and gown at Princeton either. So much for that part of the American Dream. What’s next?

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