Three years ago, I became the editor of Academe. This is my last issue. Editing the magazine has been enormously rewarding.
Though I’m a pessimist, I often remain cheerful. Even when I think the glass is two-thirds empty, I can find ways to enjoy whatever juice is left in the bottom. Still, I’m shocked by how much worse off higher education is now than it was when I became editor. By almost every measure. Of all of the things that dismay and exercise me, of the multitude of scandals and crises in higher education, one subsumes them all.
Affordable public higher education is fast slipping out of reach for the students who need it most. The dream of access to higher education for working-class and lower-middle-class students is dying because this country has decided to disinvest in public education. That means that our society will become increasingly divided. All the signs point that way.
Recently, a friend noted that among all her African American friends, only one doesn’t have substantial higher education debt. These are not people who attended expensive private colleges. These are people who wanted and needed— and, yes, of course, personally benefited from—decent public higher education. Our country has benefited as well. My friend’s friends, with few exceptions, now have both degrees and jobs. But the cost of attending the best public universities in their states has skyrocketed to $20,000 a year. That’s after grants and scholarships.
What has changed—just in the past three years—is not only the pseudopopulist rhetoric about the dubious benefits of higher education. The tone of higher education associations that should be committed to the public good has also shifted, to an increasingly stiff and insincere insistence that college is a good investment—that an average debt that’s close to $24,000, while slightly disturbing, isn’t that big a deal.
Here is what Molly Broad, president of the American Council on Education (ACE), had to say about a story the New York Times recently ran on student debt: “We take issue with your portrayal of the experience of millions of students who borrow to finance their college education,” Broad wrote in a letter to the Times. “If students and their families borrow not with their heads but over them, dire consequences can easily follow.”
This is what advocacy for higher education principles looks like? The ACE is now a kind of lean, mean, tough-love machine? What should really exercise the ACE isn’t an occasional unwise parent and student trying to grasp for some sort of educational brass ring and getting tossed off the carousel of life. Nor should it waste its time chiding the New York Times for using some worst-case debt portraits as cautionary tales. It should be taking issue with this strange new era of privatization, as the country scuttles away from its commitment to public education generally.
I’m not asking us all to agree on every issue from post-tenure review to faculty governance. It would be nice, though, to agree on the basics while there’s still a bit of decent juice left in the bottom of the glass. Affordable higher education is simultaneously a public investment—and a public asset.
Goodbye, readers. Thanks for being responsive. Thank you, dedicated AAUP staff and leaders. I want especially to thank Academe’s managing editor, Mike Ferguson. Without Mike’s talent, dedication, and unending patience, there would be no magazine. Finally, welcome to the new faculty editor, Aaron Barlow. I know he will take Academe in new and wonderful directions.