The Student News Site of Macalester College

The Mac Weekly

The Student News Site of Macalester College

The Mac Weekly

The Student News Site of Macalester College

The Mac Weekly

Tensions in Higher Education

By David Boehnke

I think higher education is going in the wrong direction, says David Nifoussi ’07. “It is becoming too expensive, only for rich people or those in debt.” People these days seem to think that something is changing in higher education, though that doesn’t necessarily mean it is becoming less important. Indeed, according to Kabir Sethi ’09, “higher education is becoming more and more important.”
In his recent work on the subject, The University in Ruins, Bill Readings argues that higher education no longer promotes nation-states via the creation of a national culture but instead has become just another administrative unit in the transnational corporate machine. As a consequence Reading sees colleges losing their privileged place as a model for society and social change. For Reading, this change is taking place via the supposedly neutral doctrine of “excellence,” which has no intellectual grounding but is instead an expansion of corporate accounting.
Tommy Kim ’09 sees this as an international trend: “Higher education is increasingly competitive but accessible to more and more elites around the world.” It seems, then, that we are witnessing a worldwide stratification, where it is not nationality but class that has taken center-stage.
The combination of increasing cost and competition is verified by an ever-growing pile of research on the increasing elitism and corporatization of higher education in the US and elsewhere. Tuition in state colleges and universities has doubled over the last five years and rising costs will shut an estimated 4.4 million students out of college by 2010. At the same time, state and federal funding is decreasing and colleges are increasingly relying on corporate support. The University of Virginia, for example, received only 8% of its budget from the state. Such reliance decreases the weight of the public over public institutions, creates a tightening of connections between corporations and higher education, and produces collateral effects to the tune of millions if not billions of dollars worth of university patents and research simply given away.

The infiltration of “excellence”-based logic can also be seen close to home. The past few years have seen the elimination of the University of Minnesota’s General College and Macalester’s policy of need-blind admissions. Such changes are all the more painful for us at Mac given that liberal arts colleges have never been wealthier and have grown colossally over the last fifteen years. The closing of our doors (or keeping them shut) is therefore an active choice in an environment of empty competition and self-inflicted submission to a corporate model of excellence.
Just this week Harvard announced that it would no longer admit students early action, citing the well-known fact that the policy favors wealthy students. Moreover, as of this year, Harvard undergrads with family income less than $60,000 will pay no tuition. Is this a defense, a stunt, a change or perhaps all three? Lorne Robinson Dean of Admissions and Financial Aid has some good things to say. “Yes, Harvard and the Ivies have been tripping over each other to try to diversify their student bodies economically.” It is important to note however that these schools “charge $50,000/year and still have trouble getting their percentage on need-based financial aid above 50%… very different from Mac.” Moreover, “the door is open for Stanford, Yale, Princeton and others to join Harvard and that was, no doubt, precisely why Harvard announced this when they did. If other ‘elite’ institutions join them, it’d be wonderful, I think.”
Like higher education in general, Macalester’s new Institute of Global Studies and Citizenship is a point of contention, an open question in a sea of larger trends. Active, civically engaged education is undergoing rapid growth, possibly to become a crucial aspect of higher education. This explosion can be seen in all types of institutions from community colleges to the most elite institutions in the United States. And like education itself, not to mention society at large, the meaning of civic engagement is in dispute. It is yet to be seen whether it represents an alternative, opposition or deepening of corporatism, or something unrelated altogether.
We are now seeing an emphasis on service learning and civic engagement across the country as something that stands out, from student groups like the Roosevelt Institute to university institutes focusing on issues like poverty (UNC Center for Poverty, Work and Opportunity) and sustainable development (Columbia’s Earth Institute). Our very own flagship, the Institute for Global Studies and Citizenship, is still in its infancy and the next few months are likely to reveal its initial goals and values.
All signs point to the idea that this new institute will, more than any other feature, represent the values of the new-Macalester to the world. Seizing this opportunity to build together this institute therefore seems to be a pressing concern. If we all take part in doing so, perhaps we will find a way to answer the questions so crucial to higher education today: what is the function of education? Who should it serve? How do we get there? I, for one, am one who sees active education as a stepping-stone to social transformation.

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