By Lawrence Wittner
Despite the soaring costs of attending American colleges and universities, their students are receiving an education that falls far short of the one experienced by earlier generations.
The sharp increase in costs is clear enough.Â Between 1978 and 2013, American college tuition rose byÂ, and became the major source of revenue for higher education.Â Â Traditionally, most public colleges and universities had no tuition or very low tuition.Â Â But, faced with severe cutbacks in government funding from conservative state legislatures, these public schools adopted a tuition system or dramatically raised tuition.Â Today, at the University of California/Berkeley (which, like the rest of the University of California system, wasÂ until the 1980s), theÂ for tuition, room, board, books, and related items is $36,015 for an in-state student and $64,029 for an out-of-state student.Â Â At the State University of New York/Albany (which, like the rest of the SUNY system, wasÂ until 1963), theÂ for an in-state student is $26,490 and for out-of-state student is roughly $43,000.
The costs at private colleges are even higher.Â Today, Harvard College estimates the total annual expenses for its students atÂ.Â Â At Columbia College, the estimated annual expenses for students have climbed toÂ .
This huge spike in the cost of a college education has had aÂupon educational opportunity.Â Unable to afford college, many young people never attend it or drop out at some point.Â Â Studies have found that the primary reason young people cite for not attending college is its enormous cost.Â Â Many other young people can afford to attend college only by working simultaneously at paying jobs (which pulls them away from their studies) or by running up enormous debt.Â Â It is estimated that three out of four recent college graduates have borrowed to cover their college costs, incurring a debt averagingÂ .Â Â As a result, American student loan debt now totals $1.5 trillion.Â Coping with this enormous debt, plus substantial interest, constitutes a very heavy burden for the 44 million Americans who bear it.Â Â All too many of them either default on it or give up on their dreams for post-college careers and, to pay it off, settle, reluctantly, for working at jobs they dislike.
Meanwhile, on campus, education is deteriorating.Â Those young people who can still afford to attend a college or university are increasingly being deprived of a broad liberal arts education (in which they have the opportunity to consider what life is all about and what it might be) and channeled, instead, into narrow vocational training programs.Â Â This June, the American Association of University Professors issuedÂcalling for the protection of the liberal arts in higher education.Â Â Why?Â Â Politicians likeÂ of Florida have proposed singling out liberal arts majorsâ€•students he apparently considers particularly unworthy of public educationâ€•and charging them higher tuition at state universities.Â Â GovernorÂ of Wisconsin has proposed dropping the goals of â€œsearch for truthâ€ and â€œimprove the human conditionâ€ from the University of Wisconsinâ€™s mission statement and substituting:Â Â â€œmeet the stateâ€™s workforce needs.â€
Also, many students are taught in vast lecture halls and have little or no access to faculty members with whom they can discuss their coursework, interesting books or ideas, or the possibilities of attending graduate or professional school.Â Â Thanks to administrative efforts to dispose of tenured and tenure-line faculty, adjunct and other contingent faculty now constituteÂof the nationâ€™s college teachers.Â Â As these underpaid, rootless individuals are often little more than evanescent ghosts flitting by on campus, there are few opportunities to meet with themâ€•if there is even aÂ place to meet with them.Â Â And student contact with human beings will be further reduced in the future, asÂ (massive online open courses) are substituted for courses taught in classroomsâ€•classrooms that once gave students the opportunity for a face-to-face discussion with their teachers and other students.
The mistreatment of students is most advanced at Americaâ€™sÂ.Â These private enterprise institutions, often owned by giant banks and investment firms, underwent a surge of growth that started in the 1970s and probably reached its peak from 2007 to 2009, when they numbered nearly 1,000 and could boast about 2.4 million students.Â Enrolling large numbers of first generation, low-income college students, theyÂ for deceptive student recruitment practices, misleading claims about program credentials, high student debt and default rates, and inferior educational and employment outcomes.
The largest for-profit school, theÂ, which claimed an enrollment of 600,000 in 2010, incurred numerous government fines and payments to students who sued it for shady admissions and educational practices.Â Â By 2017, its enrollment (like that of its for-profit counterparts) had declined substantially.Â Â Nevertheless, it continues operations today, with 95 percent of its faculty teaching part-time, adjuncts receiving approximately $1,000 to $2,000 per course, and student debt totaling $35 billionâ€•the highest in the United States.
Corporate investors in the for-profit university system can take heart at the election of Donald Trump, who himself founded a for-profit educational entity,Â, an operation that ultimately cost him $25 million to settle lawsuits for fraudulent practices.Â , his choice for U.S. Secretary of Education, scrapped two Obama-era government regulations for the industry during her first months in office.Â Â The first of the regulations she eliminated cut off U.S. government funding to programs that performed poorly, and the second made it easier for students defrauded by for-profit schools to wipe out their loan debt.Â Â DeVos also appointed a former administrator at a for-profit universityâ€•DeVry University, previously heavily-fined by the federal government for fraudulent operationsâ€•to police fraud in higher education.
Surely America can do a better job of providing educational opportunity for its people.Î¦
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, is Professor of History emeritus at SUNY/Albany.