Early on in the lifespan of this blog, I argued that the recession might be good for higher education. Clearly, I was wrong, and I admitted as much here.
Now comes more proof that I was right to say I was wrong.
According to this New York Times article, acceptance rates are down this year among Ivy League universities because application numbers have increased. Applications at schools like Harvard, Yale, Princeton, and Columbia are up by between 2 and more than 20 percent. Top public schools, including UNC-Chapel Hill, the University of Michigan, and the University of Virginia, have also reported gains.
Don’t worry, though–this trend is not universal, not even common enough to draw conclusions from. As the article points out, about half of the almost 350 colleges that accept the Common Application (a shared online application form) received more applications this year; just under half received fewer.
Fine, fine. No conclusions drawn. But add to this the increased emphasis on accepting applicants who are able to pay full tuition, and we have a social justice issue on our hands.
Clay Shirky writes that “it’s not a revolution if nobody loses.” It’s also not a revolution if everybody loses. So who wins here, other than the wealthy who will continue to exercise their right to do whatever it takes to continue to rule?
Online universities, apparently. Over at the Chronicle of Higher Education, Kevin Carey points out that enrollment in online offerings from Kaplan, the University of Phoenix, and their ilk, is up, way up. Many will bemoan this trend, Carey writes. They will argue
that the best traditional college courses are superior to any online offering, and they’re often right. There is no substitute for a live teacher and student, meeting minds. But remember, that’s far from the experience of the lower-division undergraduate sitting in the back row of a lecture hall. All she’s getting is a live version of what iTunes University offers free, minus the ability to pause, rewind, and fast forward at a time and place of her choosing.
She’s also increasingly paying through the nose for the privilege. Few things are more certain in this uncertain world than tuition increasing faster than inflation, personal income, or any other measure one could name. People will pay more for better service, but only so much more. And with the economy in a free fall, more families have less money to pay. The number of low-cost online institutions and no-cost alternatives on the other side of the accreditation wall is growing. The longer the relentless drumbeat of higher tuition goes on, the greater their appeal.
Readers of sleeping alone may remember that I’m no fan of online universities. But I’m also no fan of the skyrocketing cost of higher education. I’ve been lucky in this respect: a scholarship covered my undergraduate costs, and I’ll be fully supported as a doctoral student at Indiana University. In the middle, though…in the middle…I racked up more than $40,000 in debt earning an MFA in creative writing. (Expect a future post to elaborate upon the foolishness, self-indulgence and / or well-considered practicality of the MFA in the first decade of the 21st Century.)
Though I don’t regret my MFA–it positioned me beautifully for the work I’m doing now and my future work as a doctoral student–I’ll be stuck paying that debt down for decades. Indeed, that debt, coupled with a growing need for health insurance and a stable income, led me away two years ago from work I loved passionately: teaching as an adjunct instructor at a trio of Boston-area colleges. I may not regret the career shift, but I know others who made the same decision as I did, for the same reasons, and regret it deeply. These former instructors are now deeply mired in corporate work, in health care professions, in many other non-education fields.
And this is what makes a recession so agonizingly painful for higher education: Not only is access to education further stratified by socioeconomic status, but the quality of the education itself, especially at community colleges and less prestigious public universities, is compromised by the tough decisions intended to streamline and economize in hard times.
We want simple answers to solve these terrible, terrifying trends; but there are no simple answers. New resources, new technologies, enable unprecedented access to the knowledge distributed across vast networks of people and tools; but our culture continues to rely on an outdated credentialing system wherein what matters most is not what you know or what you can do but what degrees you hold and where you got them from. It’s not a revolution if nobody loses. What do we call it if everybody does?