Thursday, June 20, 2013

The Education Crisis: A Macro View

Education has been on my mind lately. About a month ago, I wrote about the MOOC phenomenon and my general distrust of its ability to revolutionize education. Whether that prediction is proved right or wrong, I can say that online courses have provoked a more pointed conversation on the state of American pedagogy and the role of higher education in American society. Consider, for instance, the range of educational philosophies on display in this round table discussion of MOOCs at the LA Review of Books. The New York Times just published another synopsis of the debate over online education on college campuses. And earlier this week reader JM alerted me to this video in which the education issue writ large received some unexpected attention from Miss Utah during the recent Miss USA Pageant.

(At the considerable risk of diving too deep into the wacky world of pageantry, it should be noted that Miss Utah regrouped and offered a better response about women and the wage gap (the actual topic of the question directed to her) on the Today Show on Monday, which is more than 2007's Miss South Carolina can say after this catastrophe. It should also be noted that coincidentally the other Miss Utah, the one entered in the Miss America contest, is also a spokeswoman for education and far more skilled than either of the former two. Finally, I want to be clear that I do not watch any of these events.)

Back to the topic at hand... There are any number of major challenges facing the American education system at any level. Teacher training programs have been roundly criticized. Student loan rates are out of control. Sara Mosle, who writes for the Schooling blog at the New York Times, authored this recent piece on the problem that faces students in summer classrooms without air conditioning. But the most dire problem for (and the most damning indictment of) American education is that it perpetuates, even exacerbates inequality. Rebecca Strauss notes that contrary to virtually every other wealthy nation, American education spending on wealthier, more privileged students has increased dramatically over spending on low-income students. She writes:
At the college level, the divergence in per-pupil spending is staggering. Since the 1960s, annual per-pupil spending at the most selective public and private colleges has increased at twice the rate of the least selective colleges. By 2006, the funding chasm in spending per student between the most and the least selective colleges was six times larger than in the late 1960s.
Strauss advocates for "smarter allocation of scarce resources [that] would focus on boosting lower achievers," noting that:
Historically, broad educational gains have been the biggest driver of American economic success; hence the economist’s rule of thumb that an increase of one year in a country’s average schooling level corresponds to an increase of 3 to 4 percent in long-term economic growth.
Below the college level, inequality is staggeringly apparent in any comparison of private schools versus public schools. A few weeks back David Plotz at Slate offered this (admittedly not scientific) analysis of the reality of class and status in the private school world. (Like Plotz, I am confused by some of the titles. Must there be "Queen" as well as "Your Majesty"?)

Who, then, can afford college? Not many people... not without accruing enormous amounts of debt. In a review of Neil Gross's recently published book Why Are Professors Liberal And Why Do Conservatives Care, Jeffrey Williams identifies Reagan Era neoliberalism as the origin point for the current student loan crisis:
But the current situation actually arose as a deliberate implementation of neoliberal policy in the 1980s. Before then, under the auspices of the post-World War II welfare state, culminating in Johnson’s Great Society, university tuitions were low, largely subsidized by public sources, and student loans, when taken, were relatively small. In 1982, the average federal student loan debt for a graduating senior was about $2,000 — not negligible, but a relatively modest amount (about $4,650 adjusted to 2012 dollars). By 1992, the average jumped to $9,000 ($14,500 in 2012 dollars), in 2002 to $19,000 ($24,050), and in 2012, by my estimate, to about $28,000. (That doesn’t include private loans, which have risen exponentially over the last decade.) This ascent resulted from the deregulation of loans begun in the Reagan era alongside the defunding of public entitlements. Rather than the cost of college being carried by the state — by our collective payment in taxes — it has been privatized, the cost borne by each individual. This has also created lucrative new financial markets, with high profits for Sallie Mae and other student loan holders. (Sallie Mae had been a governmental body but was privatized through the late 1990s, seeing strong profits since.) The precipitous rise in college student loan debt is neoliberalism in action.
Such growth in the loan numbers is staggering and, if Williams is right, it suggests that minor tweaks to the education system won't address the problem of widening inequality. As long as the American Right remains slavishly beholden to a neoliberal worldview and as long as it retains power in the government, even in just one house of Congress, the crisis will be impossible to address.

1 comment:

  1. Even for those who hold bachelor's degrees, "upwardly mobile" jobs now increasingly require master's degrees, which typically offer few scholarships and thus are notorious moneymakers for universities, further exacerbating inequality and leading to more debt accrual.