"Three under-reported demographic shifts that should move us to re-think higher education"

This month I make note of three facts or trends that may surprise you and comment on Paying for the Party: How College Maintains Inequality, a book that casts doubt on both the effectiveness and the fairness of much of American higher education.

It is remarkable to me how significant demographic shifts get so little attention. I have written before about the changing status of women in higher education and the workforce, the decline of marriage and of children being brought up by two parents, and the rapid increase in people living alone. This month I remark on three under-reported changes that have received a bit of attention in the past few weeks, but are far more significant in their implications than has been observed.

I am happy to report that all three of these trends are hopeful indicators. 

I don’t know about you but I need hopeful signs. The mounting evidence of decline and erosion in both current living standards and future prospects makes it a challenge for me to maintain my self-image as a “cheerful pessimist.” It is the “cheerful” that I worry about losing, as I believe that we are in an age of dizzying change, much of it driven by technological innovations of dubious value, which gives the appearance rather than the substance of progress.

So, here’s some good news.

Under-reported fact # 1 – Amidst all the challenges of improving K- 12 education, 2010 data confirms the now decade-long upward movement in the nation’s overall high school graduation rate, which is now 78%.  Although we have just gotten back to the rates we saw in the early seventies, this still represents significant progress. If we could develop a comprehensive workforce preparation strategy so non-college bound high school graduates (as well as drop-outs) get the additional skill-training they need for the new economy, we might well make considerable gains in combating inequality and poverty.

Under-reported fact # 2 - This past year Hispanic high school graduates surpassed whites in the rate of college enrollment. Sixty-nine percent of Hispanic high school graduates enrolled in college, while sixty-seven percent of white high school graduates enrolled. In the last decade Hispanic high school drop-out rates improved much faster than the overall rate. It is also reported that Hispanic families increasingly view college as critical to a better life, and do so more than other demographic groups. This data portends significant changes in the American economic and cultural landscape.

Under-reported fact # 3 - In 2012, for the first time in history, the percentage of African Americans voting in an election exceeded that of the white population. For those of us involved in progressive politics over a long period of time, the differing turnout percentages of racial and economic groups have been a worry for decades. Poor people and people of color have historically voted in much lower percentages. We know that in many previous elections, including some where the final tally was not even that close, the results would have been different had all segments of the population voted in the same percentages.  If 2012’s numbers are a reliable future indicator, and not simply a reflection of support for Barack Obama, it points to major changes ahead in the electoral landscape.

Now you will have to hang on the good feelings this data induces as you examine other pronounced trends in higher education, namely poor graduation rates, dubious learning outcomes for many of those who do graduate, and questionable fairness in the application of scholarship dollars increasingly granted on the basis of “merit” rather than need.

I spent a great deal of my working life in K- 12 education, a sector under intense scrutiny since A Nation at Risk was published in 1983, and have observed the uncomfortable responses scrutiny usually induces – defensiveness and stubborn resistance are as common as they are unproductive. You hear these responses from many in higher education today as they circle the wagons rather than consider sensible alternatives to current practices.

Of course the causes of many of higher education’s problems are complex, as is made clear in Paying for the Party: How College Maintains Inequality. Written by Elizabeth Armstrong and Laura Hamilton, sociologists from the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor and the University of California at Merced, respectively Paying for the Party focuses on life at a flagship Midwestern state university and adds depth to many of the conclusions of 2011’s Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses.  That study, by Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa reports that as many as 36% of all college students learn almost nothing in their four years of schooling and highlights large state schools as places where it is easy to do very little work and absorb very little knowledge yet still graduate with a “marketable” grade point average.

Paying for the Party describes the culture that is contributing to that lack of learning and how we got there. Armstrong and Hamilton demonstrate how declining government support for public higher education contributes to state schools focusing on recruiting out-of-state students with the ability to pay higher tuitions.  To attract these students, colleges devote substantial resources to the social and athletic components of college life. The authors note how prevalent the “party pathway” has become and how it serves the economic and social interests, if not the educational needs, of the already advantaged at the expense of those more on the “outside,” for whom college is an economic and social challenge of a very different kind.  Paying for the Party helps us understand the destructive nature of the “arms race” as colleges build increasingly luxurious dormitories and invest in other amenities, such as opulent new athletic centers, in order to win the contest for the shrinking pool of available students from families with the dollars to pay full or near-full tuition. 

Think about the messages we are sending. The emphasis on physical plant amenities and athletics, as well as the spending, likely contributes to the culture that allows for lax study habits and low academic ambitions documented by Academically Adrift and bemoaned by many who teach these unengaged and unmotivated students.

Causation is a complicated matter. But if we do indeed reap what we sow, the fact that many students view college as essentially a four-year paid vacation is tied to decisions about who colleges seek to serve. Colleges of course say they have no choice – that in this era of greatly reduced government support, they must recruit those who can pay and offer them the amenities and campus culture that will draw them to their schools.

As the British poet Philip Larkin wrote in “Going, Going”, a poem about environmental decay, “Most things are never meant.”  I doubt that we actually intend to accelerate our national decline by reducing academic standards and access to education for the less fortunate, but that is what is happening. Even the statistic cited above about growing college-going rates among Hispanic youth is blunted by examining how few of these primarily first generation students are attending rigorous four-year schools.

Don’t underestimate the effects of all of this. Our social and economic mobility rates used to be among the best of the wealthier nations, they now rank near the bottom. In researching his book on American inequality, The Great Divergence, Timothy Noah discovered that mobility is now so uncommon that today “parentage is a greater determinant of a man’s future earnings than it is of his height and weight.” Higher education needs to examine what it is doing to contribute to this, and those of us privileged to work at values-driven institutions such as Antioch need to tackle this issue head on, every day, in all that we do and say.