Archive | August, 2009

Issue XXXI: But Who is Education Really for?

24 Aug

Is higher education (at least at the highest and most elite levels) really about education?  Or is it really just another Dr. Seussian moneymaking scam to put green stars on our bellies to make us feel entitled?

Once upon a time, going to your state’s (or country’s) proud and storied land-grant public university was good enough to get you on your way up to the top of your local elite.  But in the age of globalization, we now have an internationalization of elites and with it, an internationalization and concentration of elite status markers.  The biggest one?  A fancy American (or British) college education, particularly Oxbridge or the Ivy League.

The modern Sylvester McMonkey McBeans are “independent schools”, private boarding schools that function as feeder schools into the Ivy League.  Despite the Great Recession, applications to attend these schools (tuition averaging $20,000 a year) are still rising.  Apparently the elite that sold the world for a mortgage-backed security can still afford to pay $32,000 for some young punk’s high school.  Hell, Manhatten Private School Advisers charge $18,500 just help parents apply to these boarding schools.

Then when the young’uns graduate, Mommy and Daddy can get them into an elite college as a “legacy” admission (at Amherst, for example, 10% of seats are set aside for children of alumni who don’t make the grade).  Or by virtue of going to one of these prep schools, their headmasters (you know, principals in the rest of America) can work their connections and “understandings” with Ivy League schools to get them in.  This helps explain how the 7% of privately-educated children in Britain end up representing 40% of the enrollment of Oxford and Cambridge.  Apparently the green stars pay off.

Or do they really?  Wouldn’t these rich kids do just as well going to public K-12 schools?  SAT scores correlate strongly with affluence, so why would they need the help to get in?

Or why bother at all with fancy colleges?  An even dirtier secret is that rankings have next to nothing to do with the actual teaching and learning at the undergraduate level and more to do with alumni donation rates, SAT scores, and rejection/acceptance rates.  Surveys that remain unreleased to the general public find the amount of actual critical thinking and learning going on has nothing to do with the name brand of a school, so is anyone actually getting what they pay for?  Besides giving us the green belly star of smug entitlement of course.

Meanwhile our own state universities seek to abandon their public interest mission after decades of declining funding.  The University of Texas at Austin, for example, cost $50 a semester for tuition in the 1970s when 90% of their budget came from the state.  Now only a third of the budget comes from the state and the rest has to come from tuition and fees and other sources.  The once proud and cheap University of California System also faces financial and academic ruin from their budget crisis I detailed earlier.  UC San Francisco only receives 7% of its budget from the state of California, and they want to cut that too.

Yet despite the funding shortfalls public school administrators have picked up the habits of shameless and unaccountable private sector bankers.  Our former University of Texas chancellor, Mark Yudof, was an overpaid asshole ($787,319 with perks) who jumped ship to mismanage the University of California and collect more money ($828,000).  His sole accomplishment, as far as I can tell, was deregulating tuition through the roof while watching the flagship fall in international and national standings (15th to 70th in the world).  And like politically tone-deaf AIG executives, the UT bigshots gave themselves million dollar bonuses, despite hurricane season.  Yet rank-and-file university employees haven’t seen a raise in years!

Is it any wonder that Tony Marx, president of Amherst, said that elite colleges “deepen the country’s growing class divisions and exacerbate the long-term decline in economic and social mobility”?

Preach on brother; we could use more of you for those of us in the education world who don’t see education as a luxury good.  Perhaps we should stop joking that these institutions are a charities while we are it too.

Links:

Businessweek – Article about the new radical college president of Amherst

The EconomistNauseating article about private boarding schools

IndependentCharity status of private schools under threat