The Wrong Question: Is This Higher Education's Golden Age?

Stephen Brint's essay "Is This Higher Education's Golden Age?" in the Chronicle of Higher Education (adapted from his book Two Cheers for Higher Education) attempts to address the pessimism that currently pervades higher education. It does so through making a number of arguments about rates of research production, numbers of students and faculty, investment dollars, and a number of other quantifiable metrics.

His essay hits on an important point--namely that we in higher education sometimes forget to recognize our many successes and to highlight the truly transformative work that we do.

That said, it seems to me that the essay downplays a number of troubling developments within academia over the last several decades--developments that seem to be accelerating. In part, I think that this is a result of Brint's emphasis on numbers (which I don't want to dismiss, because they are an important part of the story, but just a part). 

For example, in addressing the concerns of those who worry about the increases in college tuition, Brint responds by arguing that undergraduate enrollment growth has been steady. If students continue to pay, then it must be worth their investment. From this point of view, education is a commodity, bought and sold according to market demands. But, this perspective misses the point. A Starbucks latte is a commodity. If Starbucks increases the price of latte, and people still pay for it, so be it. 

An education is something else entirely. Most importantly, it is a public good. Having more people with more education across a broad spectrum of knowledge has short-term and long-term benefits to society--creating more economically and civically vibrant communities. When public universities increase tuition (most often in response to cuts in state funding), it transfers the cost of this public good to individuals. Not only does this place a financial burden on people who are just getting started in life, but it forces them to make choices driven by socioeconomic contingency: choosing a school; choosing a major; or choosing to forego college altogether. 

We can see the effects of this. Increasingly, students are pursuing degrees that they think will get them a good job. While Brint notes that we are seeing an increase in enrollment, we are also seeing a rapid decline in students in arts and humanities programs. In avoiding these programs, they are missing out on important historical, ethical, and cultural knowledge, which is increasingly invaluable in our contemporary world.  

But shifting the cost of university education to individuals also reflects a broader shift in the ways that we conceive governmental responsibility. The support that states once offered to their public education systems continues to be whittled away. Legislators increasingly act as if education is a private good, not a public good. This shift has resulted in the ballooning of private charter schools and private school vouchers at the K-12 level and cuts in appropriations at the postsecondary level. Moreover, legislators are increasingly framing the language of education in instrumentalist terms. The value of a degree program equates to how much money students can make just out of college (the income argument) or how well it satisfies the immediate needs of employers (the workforce argument). For the most part, they frame the value of a college education in response short-term market economics. Rarely is education presented as a long-term investment that yields a wide range of benefits to individuals and their communities over time.

So, while Brint's point about steadily increasing tuition may be correct at face value, there are deeply troubling issues just below the surface. And, to be clear, it seems that Brint recognizes this to be the case. Unfortunately, his essay sidesteps these issues. For example, he begins one section of his essay with the observation, "We often hear about the golden age of American higher education, dating from the 1950s and early 1960s, when states held down tuition costs even as they invested heavily in building new campuses." But, rather than engaging with the problem of tuition, he shifts his focus to the importance of research outputs, never addressing the core issue over why states have cut back so dramatically on tuition support. 

In my reading of his essay, Brint's claim that we are in a new golden age of universities comes down to a key indicator: research outputs. But, as with enrollments, support for research across the disciplines is highly uneven. As he notes, there is a massive difference between philanthropic and federal support for STEMM and support for the arts and humanities. 

But even if this might be a golden age for university research outputs, it is not a golden age for faculty. Brint's report notes significant increases in the number of faculty members since the 1970s. But (as he also recognizes), nearly all of the increase is due to hiring contingent faculty. These individuals--over half of the faculty members in the United States--are often poorly paid and lack medical or retirement benefits. In fact, rather than a golden age, this seems to be the age of the university precariat. (Last week, Herb Childress published a thoughtful response to Brint's essay that engages specifically with the experience of contingent faculty: "Is this really higher education's golden age--or is it just a gold-plated age?"

In sum, I don't disagree with Brint's data. Rather, I think that his essay unnecessarily rejects valid critiques of the state of higher education. Certainly, by some metrics, the US system of higher education is running on all cylinders. However, this has come at a cost: the increasing commodification of knowledge; cuts in public support and the concurrent rise of private debt; the instrumentalization of public education to serve market demands; and the balooning of the faculty precariat. 

Is this higher education’s golden age? That might be the wrong question. Perhaps it is better to ask, “what should a golden age of higher education look like?”