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Higher Ed's Past is Gilded, Not Golden

“Students and families just feel like they’ve been with a wrecking ball when it comes to college,” Senator Ron Wyden admitted to a group of Oregon high schoolers in January 2016. The Democrat insisted that what beleaguers them “has happened in the last decade,” repeating a common myth that there was once a golden age for the American academy. Many people who bemoan the current, intertwined crises in institutional funding and student debt look back fondly on the 1960s as a time when tuition and fees were affordable, campus jobs were good, and lawmakers generously funded colleges and universities so that they could rapidly expand to accommodate the many baby boomers eager to apply.

Data exist to support this “golden age” story of postwar higher education’s meteoric growth. As discussed in my book Indentured Students, the percentage of Americans enrolling in and finishing college grew dramatically between 1954 and 1974, when the number of community colleges doubled and many campuses expanded in size. Faculty jobs were also better. The majority of instructors had tenure or were on the tenure track. Federal aid also increased, jumping from annual expenditures of $1.4 billion to $3.7 billion between 1963 and 1966 alone. Since then, there has been a noticeable decline in federal and state support for higher education.

Yet “gilded,” not “golden,” best describes this period of postwar expansion. Federal policy makers, state legislators, and academic administrators did not transform college finances or make higher education genuinely equitable, afford­able, or accessible. Instead, they continued the age-old American tradition of having colleges and universities compete for much-needed revenue from donors, students, businesses, and lawmakers. Rather than simply offering federal finan­cial support, Democrats and Republicans prioritized competitive research grants, lending opportunities for campus construction needs, and student loans for the tuition and fees upon which many institutions (whether public or private) relied. Landmark legislation, from the 1944 GI Bill to the 1965 Higher Education Act, did little to compel campuses to improve the quality of student jobs or build a financial aid system premised on affordability, inclusivity, and equal access. Indeed, Great Society liberals created the Guaranteed Student Loan Program in 1965 in order to avoid the kind of direct federal funding that would have kept tuition costs down. That incredibly complicated financial product promised only repayment to bankers—not the support campuses and students needed. It’s a lending scheme that epitomizes how gilded the academy’s past was and why its future hinges on a truly progressive break with placing the burden on students and parents to pay for what should be a basic public good.

Much of American higher education’s past looks gilded in retrospect. Scholar Virginia Sapiro has painstakingly highlighted just how many campuses closed or teetered on the brink of bankruptcy throughout the nineteenth century. Most of them lacked sustained, adequate financing. Instead, they relied on an uncertain mix of donations, student tuition and fees, business partnerships, and (some­times) state support. Even the storied land-grant universities struggled despite having benefited from the still-celebrated 1862 Morrill Act, which gave states federal land to sell in order to establish colleges specializing in agriculture and the mechanical arts. Historians and journalists work­ing on the Land-Grab Universities project have shown that legislation to have resulted in a massive transfer of wealth from the sale of lands often violently seized from Indigenous people. Many plots went unsold for decades and earned far less than expected.

In part, these financial struggles stem from the high costs of building and maintaining colleges and uni­versities, which have shaped campus labor practices. In the nineteenth century, administrators relied on enslaved workers, students, and poorly paid employ­ees to do much of that labor. Faculty jobs were not necessarily good jobs. The inadequate compensation so appalled Andrew Carnegie, who valued faculty research, that he embraced a proposal to start a retire­ment fund for faculty members in the early 1900s. The Carnegie Teachers Pension Fund was eventually spun off from the Carnegie Foundation for the Advance­ment of Teaching and was the predecessor of today’s TIAA (formerly TIAA-CREF).

Read entire article at Academe