As I finish the second calendar year of blogging regularly for Forbes, I realize I never have really seriously confronted an issue of fundamental importance regarding American higher education. Does the current generation or two of Americans, mostly born between, say, 1940 and 1980, the individuals who today run our nations business, professional and governmental enterprises and provide resources for Americas colleges and universities, realize that they are seriously botching arguably their most sacred responsibility, of caring for their progeny, the next generation? Dont parents and grandparents consider it a prime goal in life to provide for their children by preparing them to be tomorrows leaders and to do good works, making for a prosperous and just world decades into the future?
Everywhere I turn I see politically and economically powerful adults disadvantaging future generations. At the federal level, politicians see short term political gains in spending literally trillions of dollars of borrowed money, adding to the fiscal burden of their children and grandchildren. For many Americans, our primary and secondary educational preparation is woefully inadequateinner city schools, for example, are mostly a disaster, yet we do little to radically change them.
While we expend a good amount of resourcesthree percent of total outputon colleges and universities, less and less of it actually goes towards instructing the next generation, and more and more goes to subsidize high price administrative bloat, entertainments (especially expensive intercollegiate athletic competitions) and research of little social utility. Resources are seized by university leadersseasoned adultsin the form of economic rentspayments beyond what is necessary to procure their servicesrather than utilized for the benefit of the next generation. Adults are ripping off the young.
Some, for example New York University anthropologist Caitlin Zaloom (author of Indebted: How Families Make College Work at Any Cost) argue the current generation of middle class adults are facing a depressing dilemma: how can they provide a good collegiate education to the children they love without sacrificing their own financial future? Zaloom thinks they are in a horrible bind.
An alternative interpretation is less charitable: the current generation of Americans running this country have pushed up the cost of higher education and lowered its quality, in part with borrowed money (from federal budget deficits that indirectly have helped finance our current $1.5 trillion student loan debt). In order to maintain their own high life style, todays parents have effectively forced their kids to borrow to pay for their education, something they and their parents did not have to doat a time when society was much poorer.
Returning to education, we have lost sight of the basics: are our young learning a lot about things that prepare them to be responsible and productive citizens in the future? Are we downplaying the dissemination of truth and beauty in favor of spending resources on other things? For example, do universities really need umpteen bureaucrats who neither teach nor do research that might help future generations?
The public love affair with universities is declining. According to the National Student Clearinghouse, at the beginning of this decade, there were over 20 million Americans attending college; this fall, there were fewer than 18 million, a decline of over 10%. This falls decline was 1.3%. All segments showed falling enrollmentfor-profit, not-for-profit, two year and four year schools, private and public ones. The proportion of Americans in college has fallen even more than enrollments since 2010around 17%because of population growth. The retreat from higher education is substantial.
The excesses of the colleges were fueled largely by federal student assistance funds supplied by a national government that in turn borrowed much of the money from investors buying government bonds. This led to the tuition, staffing and perhaps even the athletic excesses that defining modern American higher education.
For years, the American public unflinchingly accepted the siren calls of the college for all crowd: you will not succeed in life unless you go to college. They increasingly are rejecting that. To be sure, demographic factors (falling birth rates) and tight labor markets (making the opportunity cost of attending school high) have contributed to the enrollment decline. But the trust in colleges being the path to opportunity in America has severely eroded.