In Defense of Higher Education

In Defense of Higher Education

“Colleges are fucked,” billionaire investor Mark Cuban exclaimed in a recent interview. “There is no way they come out of this unscathed.”

Even before the pandemic, many colleges were on thin ice. Hundreds were failing to attract students, deficits were rising, budgets were being slashed, and a number of high statused academic institutions were plagued by embarrassing scandals.  

COVID-19 will be the salt on the universities’ existing wounds. Remote learning will dampen fall enrollment. The trepidation around international travel will shut off access to colleges’ biggest cash cows – foreign students. Sponsorships and partnerships with the private sector will surely decline. And budgets, which largely depend on federal and state funding, will continue to be under extreme financial pressure.

It will be hard for colleges to garner much sympathy. For the most part, academic institutions ignored or failed to acknowledge and deal with their blind spots. Many continued to invest in non-essential items like new gyms. Others rejected incorporating online learning. Most failed to tailor their curriculum for a more competitive skills-based globalized world, and top-ranked institutions made minimal progress toward diversifying and expanding opportunities for low-income students.

In a recent interview with CNBC, University of California President Janet Napolitano said, “we (universities) overlooked a lot of our structural problems and now we’re paying for it. The pandemic was the last straw. Not the catalyst for our current struggles.”

Even though it’s common knowledge, highlighting how absurd the sticker price of college has become can’t be understated. From 2007 to 2017, the average annual cost of a degree at a four-year public university rose from $15,000 to $19,000 (a 26 percent jump). Students and parents have accumulated more than $1.5 trillion of debt (more than all credit cards in the US). The average undergrad leaves school more than $25,000 in debt. Only healthcare rivals higher education as a legal economic sector with such exorbitant price hikes.

Higher education must also confront a very big elephant in the room: a degree no longer provides the same kind of upward mobility or societal advancement it once did.

As Annie Lowrey from the Atlantic explains, “The cost of higher education grew by 7 percent per year through the 1980s, 1990s, and much of the 2000s, far faster than the overall rate of inflation, leaving Millennial borrowers with an average of $33,000 in debt. Worse: The return on that investment has proved dubious.”

Further, schools failed to innovate their business model. Most did not account for the risk associated with overpricing a product with arguably waning value that does not deliver on what it says it does. 

Nor, did they properly address the dynamics of a new generation on campus. As a result, the current campus environment is not a center where students build the mental and emotional muscles necessary to entertain opposing ideas and navigate discomfort and uncertainty. This has left them less adaptive and resilient as they enter the workforce and engage in society or understand politics. Missing out on a key opportunity to build critical thinking skills has made them worse and less independent citizens.

Colleges also failed to prepare their students to enter the workforce. A Harvard Business Review study found three out four graduates do not have the skills to even perform entry level work. Two out of three college grads claim they don’t know how to launch their career.

But I don’t think universities will or should wither away. As mismanaged and ineffective schools have become, we shouldn’t abandon the on-campus component of college or think that complete remote learning is a sound alternative.

Higher education today surely deserves a failing grade in many aspects but we can’t overlook it’s resume. For starters, colleges have been instrumental in pioneering medical science. Advances in chemistry traces back to research universities (my alma mater, UC Berkeley, always reminded us that our institution discovered 16 elements). The basic research for designing vaccines was created at Boston University. The idea for the first blood banks came from grad students at the University of Chicago during World War I. Scientists at John Hopkins built tests that spot tiny amounts of cancer-specific DNA in blood. They credited the countless hours undergrad students helped with back-end and basic research needs. 

Recently, Georgia Tech’s Global Center for Medical Innovation, along with their business school, proposed ways to reduce bottlenecks in the supply chain for N95 masks. None of these breakthroughs could have happened via a Zoom.

1st Amendment Spaces

Universities have traditionally been at the vanguard in upholding the right to speech and organizing, having a history of spearheading national protests. From the Free Speech movement birthed out of UC Berkeley, to the Vietnam anti-war protests, Kent State riots, and the Keystone Pipeline push back, colleges have been an arena to organize and be heard. Today’s push into more sustainable and ethical investing by endowments has come largely by students pushing more. There are very few places besides a college campus where a collective consciousness can be organized and heard. The impact of such mass gatherings couldn’t have happened in a digital arena.

Local Goldmine

Another important contribution from college institutions is the revenue they bring to their local economy. According to the Brookings Institution, the average bachelor’s degree holder contributes $278,000 more to local economies than the average high school graduate through direct spending over the course of his or her lifetime; an associate degree holder contributes $81,000 more than a high school graduate. On average, colleges net a local economy the equivalent of .5% of the region’s yearly GDP. 

Universities also create an ecosystem of shops, eateries, pubs, coffee spots and recreational activities that bring in loads of money. One study by the Manhattan Institute noted a mid-size college with just 5,000 students in a city’s backyard can provide more cash to the local economy than housing a Fortune 500 company, aerospace, robotics, finance, or even a healthcare firm. 

Colleges are also an enormous part of the DNA of towns and cities. They inject a fun and spirited culture into a region. An object of shared pride that locals can cherish. When I was a city reporter, I would ask locals what made them proud to live in their town. Most (even those who didn’t attend), mentioned something about their local university.

An Unrivaled Ecosystem

So many of those who argue in favor of dismantling the higher education system say that there are other ways young adults can mingle in such high numbers. But all of them fail to provide an alternative. Because there isn’t. Very few places provide young people an opportunity to meet different people, explore new ideas, have their identities and ideas challenged, and be forced to grow. Arguably this hasn’t been the case recently. But if designed correctly, college forces you to learn how to congregate in uncomfortable settings and eventually provides you with the tools to gather in groups that do make you feel comfortable.

Campus life can be a healthy version of social speed dating: meeting hoards of people in a short time frame and forcing you to figure out who you want to associate with.

Which is the final and most important benefit of our current university system: an avenue for building strong communities. So many of these colleges are in small rural towns that would have no common connection if the university ecosystem collapsed. What would Davis be without UC Davis? What would Lubbock, Texas be without Texas Tech? Columbus, Ohio would collapse without Ohio State University and so would it’s rival’s home Ann Arbor. 

There is a lot that foreigners shake their heads at when they judge America, but a lot of my international friends are in awe of the camaraderie universities bring. Colleges provide a chance to make lifelong kinships within one’s dorms, area of study, extracurricular activities, or Greek life.

Lastly, a decentralized college model may be a cure that is worse than the disease. Classes with over 100 people are already a nightmare in person; placing that forever online would be a disaster. 

Digital education is a horrible platform for discussion-based learning. With individuals being more wrapped up in their beliefs, this would be disastrous for challenging one’s assumptions. In-person engagement builds a sense of empathy that online interactions do not. Additionally, there is no real online replacement for lab-based learning or liberal arts classes like architecture,theatre, public speaking, drawing, or music.

Last December, I visited my old alma mater. As I walked through the campus, the memories of agonizing late night study sessions, student loans, romantic rejections, and the unworthwhile classes (i.e. Intro to Marine Mammals) stored deep in my hippocampus (I learned that’s where memories are placed in the brain in my biology class) never crossed my mind. Instead, I remembered the joy of learning, partying on Thursdays, overcoming intellectual challenges, the group projects my peers and I successfully completed, the connections I made, and friendships I’ve maintained nearly 15 years later.

Academic institutions have messed up. They hardly deserve our pity. They need to be leaner, more adaptable, and re-focus on their mission of making sure the individuals that leave their institutions are significantly better off than when they entered. But if we look to obliterate an experience that can be profoundly beneficial to society in political, cultural, medical, and commercial ways, then we are the ones that are fucked. 

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