What if students stop going to college?

9 04 2012

You’ve probably already read this terrific Tenured Radical post on the subject of conservative attacks against higher ed. Labeled as an essay about the “conservative war on professors,” she’s actually talking about a much wider conflict:

The attack on higher ed is well underway, and has been a consistent feature of conservative coalition building for the last 60 years. It is not symbolic, and the practical groundwork has already been laid for scoring big victories should a Santorum or a Gingrich reach the White House. The stage has been set in the decades-long refusal to raise corporate taxes to support education, the dramatic expansion of imprisonment as an alternative to educating the poor, the shifting of federal funds into military spending even as we wind down two budget-busting and immoral wars, and the current insistence that colleges and universities, and the tenured faculty who teach there, are alone responsible for the high cost of tuition.

The leadership of the Republican Party no longer wants to spend anything on anybody unless they’re already rich and or at least already tend to vote Republican. Most professors aren’t part of that constituency (and those who are will get private support from the American Enterprise Institute or some giant pharmaceutical manufacturer) so Republicans (and the occasional “pro-business” Democrat) refuse to invest in higher education at all. Ed explains the results of such policies in general:

So why, one might wonder, can Congress or state legislatures spur economic growth by cutting spending? The fundamental problem of the business and the government is the same: not enough revenue coming in to meets its obligations. Firing people and shuttering stores is a knee jerk response that promises meager short term benefits at the cost of substantial long term losses.

In the higher education sector specifically, this means that college will inevitably become both more expensive and of lower quality. Online education accelerates this trend further by depriving traditional education even more necessary funds in order to create the infrastructure needed to treat students like numbers.

Here’s what scares me: What if the point of these attacks isn’t to rally the base, but to convince as many students as possible not to seek higher education in the first place? After all, why pay so much for an expensive, impersonal product when there’s no jobs to be found when it’s over? Perhaps that’s why tuition discounts have apparently lost their ability to attract new college students. Maybe they’re just no longer interested. In the future, even more students might forego college not because it’s unaffordable, but because they think it’s no longer worth the risk or the effort.

If they don’t succeed in killing desire, the destroy higher ed crowd could always kill demand involuntarily. God help us all if the banks or the government ever cut off the spigots that are student loans. Henry Ford, for all his problems, understood that the most important reason for mass production was to bring prices down so that even his factory workers could afford the product that they’re making. I pick on Ben Nelson of the Minerva Project, but he is the first online higher ed entrepreneur that I’ve ever encountered who’s at least trying to undersell something. Without access to affordable student loans, every university above the level of a community college has already priced itself out of the market. Absent that assistance, the current budget crisis at American universities is going to look like the good old days. Building another climbing wall in the gym isn’t going to help.

In its quest to turn the clock back to the late nineteenth century, the modern Republican Party wants to hasten that day of reckoning. War on professors? Try war on higher education. No, scratch that. How about war on practically everybody? Professors are just convenient targets to entice most Americans to take their eyes off the ball.


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2 responses

9 04 2012
Barbara Sullivan

I don’t think it’s just about convenient targets: It’s an Orwellian war on information at every level, which is why public education is under attack beginning even with Head Start. Advertising and media control aren’t enough to completely secure elections when voters are trained in critical thinking and information literacy, and the engagement of the “youth” vote in 2008 rattled the right wing. Since corporate power has gone global, there is no need for an educated American work force, and every reason to dumb it down, since power still resides here, in what is still, inconveniently (and barely), a democracy.

9 04 2012
Anonymous

Someone is swimming in de nile.

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