Look, I embrace that I am a nobody. It works for me. However, where and when possible, I extend what applied knowledge and expertise I have to issues that I think matter. This blog is an exercise in that activity. I do not do it because it pays well or because I think I have all the answers. As I have mentioned before, my guidelines for what I will address are pretty clear. Only after I consider if I can contribute and if no one else appears to be saying what I think should be said do I conduct the time cost-benefit analysis of any public writing.
When the topic is higher education, I wish I felt less compelled and less often.
My friend Matt Reed has written a stunningly good response to a recent series the Washington Post has been running on the crisis in US higher education. Matt speaks from empirical and experiential expertise. He is one of a few of what I call “sector hoppers” that have, like me, worked in both the traditional and for-profit sector. It shouldn’t matter but I find, increasingly, that such insight does increase the odds of one producing nuanced analysis of the structural changes occurring in higher education. You’re less likely to throw the ideologue’s baby out with the ideological baby when you have had to live in the thing you study.
We talk often about the demise of the influence of traditional media but that is relative. Yes, our media landscape is more fragmented than it has likely ever been since mass media became a thing. However, there is nothing yet quite like the scope, reach, and influence of traditional media outlets. They may sell less advertising and land on fewer doorsteps but they still overwhelmingly produce our pundit class who, in turn, shape and/or sell dominant narratives that shape opinion, action and policy.
So, when a paper like the Washington Post decides to devote valuable space to what is often considered a niche interest, like higher education is when there isn’t a scandal involved, people take notice.
Unfortunately the depth, tone, and tenor of most national higher education conversation offers people little in the way of thoughtful analysis or expertise. They do us all a disservice.
But, so do we. We, academics, if I may claim status group membership here for a moment, have not taken seriously our institutions as objects of rigorous inquiry.
It’s as if our best, brightest, sharpest minds turn to mush when the subject turns from dead theorists to higher education.
Bloggers and beat reporters are working under organizational constraints that reward ideological soundbites, shallow analysis, and provide few resources to challenge dominant narratives.
However, academics, writers, professional thinkers can augment those voices. Sure, we can’t make media pay us attention or offer us a platform but we can be out there pushing for better coverage than what we’re given.
Where are the big thinkers on higher education?
Where are our theorists? Our empiricists? Our cultural critics?
A few have blogs where incredible, valuable work does not get the reach it deserves. Others have important platforms with niche publications. Yet, national media is largely defining the parameters for general debate about higher education. And national media is largely giving us content when we need and deserve good writing and clear thinking.
I am not attacking the personal aptitude or skill of reporters who have written on higher education. I suspect most are doing what they are asked to do within the limits of resources and rewards for doing it. What I am saying is let’s take a look at who is shaping the debate on how we will learn, work, invest in, and provide for the intellectual capital of our populace.
A quick survey of writers of popular higher education writings on national platforms reveal only two with professional academic training. They are both renowned economists. And, don’t get me started on higher education being treated largely as a market. Still, their contributions count. However, two economists do not a thriving intellectual debate about higher education make.
Matt points out several critical theoretical weaknesses of the Washington Post analysis. From my experience as a professional consumer of these articles, they are typical. They include unexamined, implicit assumptions about higher education as a market when there are reams of empirical, respected work that refute this narrow interpretation. They also include implicit assumptions about what people want for an education as necessarily conflated with what the private sector elite want from education. They tend to treat all colleges and universities the same. This, despite all the empirical evidence that the U.S. higher education system is a diverse institutional field. Organizational characteristics matter greatly to everything from how federal aid is administered to what kinds of students are served to institutional sensitivity to public policy.
But, the American people aren’t getting any of that if they are relying on major news outlets to write clearly about the challenges facing higher education without sacrificing the complexity.
I suspect the elite media silo suffers from the same disease from which academia suffers: they are largely produced by elite institutions. When you have always been going to college and you are produced by a HarvardYaleStanfordSevenSisters, it is easy to believe that all colleges are like your college. In your world, they are. It is like a brilliant, wealthy higher education analysts who, after I told him I doubted that technocratic solutions would resolve higher ed inequalities, was stunned to learn that not every household in America has access to high speed wireless internet. Because when you went to a top ten B-school and walked into a lucrative investment job your “everyone” does have high speed internet.
The few elite have always largely set policy for us minions. That’s America, I suppose. But, we have also produced photos, sound, art, culture, law, movements that have changed the trajectory of policy and the body politic.
That we seem to have largely given up on doing that when the matter is higher education is odd.
It is also dangerous.
Higher education can seem like a niche concern when for your entire lifetime it has existed as it did for your parents and their parents before them. The privilege to see higher education as niche, as a market is a function of the institutional elitism that produces professional bloggers and pundits.
For millions of others higher education, and the federal system that funds it, is one of the last great opportunity nets in this country. It is far from perfect. It is not even sufficient for mobility, as we have seen with the relative flat change in U.S. mobility. I may argue that it is not a solution for group inequality but higher education can matter to individual opportunity. And there are fewer such opportunities. The landscape is bleak: new lifetime limits on food stamps and housing subsidies; chexsystem databases that bar you from banking services for decades at a time; residential segregation that limits individual access to information and mobility; fewer working class jobs that pay enough to afford family housing in cities where your children are less likely to be permanently relegated to underfunded public schools; and, increasing income inequality. With this reality, higher education is for many a lifetime to a chance, however slim, to access capital not tied to the circumstances of their birth that they can exchange for a credential that increases their access not just to better wages but full citizenship.
Something that large, that important to a significant share of the American people deserves better than the reporting it gets in our media.