It is (still) all about the Money: Another Review of Higher Education?

I reviewed the book Higher Education? by Andrew Hacker and Claudia Dreifus last year (see here for the final review and a list of the other reviews; it was a six-part series). I recently received the updated paperback version that has some additional material, including a new afterward. Much of my criticisms of the original book still stand, but it hard for me not to recommend a book that says the following:

What do we think should happen in college? We want people to use their minds as they never have before, thinking about the realities and issues that strain their mental powers. They should be urged to be imaginative and inquiring, to take risks without having to worry about their transcripts or alienating their teachers. To quote a friend, colleges should be making their undergraduates more interesting people. Higher education is an ongoing conversation, created for students poised at adulthood, which can and will continue throughout their lives. (6-7)

These are some of the things I aspire to do in my classes, and so I think that while their hearts are in the right place, I still have some issues with the authors’ arguments. For one thing, everything that is wrong with higher education is a microcosm (or, if you’d like me to get all literary on you, a synecdoche) of what is wrong with society as a whole at the moment: greed, exponential growth, exploited underclass, bubbles about to burst, blind faith, etc. Our students (and their parents) come in not wanting an education but a job and the security that comes with it. So we provide it. The government keeps providing loans, so we take them, both students and institutions. There is a disconnect between those in administration, those who are professors, and those who are off the tenure-track. Perhaps disconnect is the wrong word: massive craters of empty space is a more apt metaphor.

But I want to get back to a question I asked the first time around: How Much is a Professor Worth? Comparing salaries of professors is really difficult to do; depending on where you live, what you study, and the nature of the institution, salaries will vary wildly. So to celebrate the professor living in rural Oregon and their (comparatively) paltry salaries is a bit unfair to those professors who have to try and make a living in New York City, San Francisco, Boston, or any other high-priced center. But it also doesn’t take into consideration the economic realities of professors today.

The authors rightly call for the end of adjunct exploitation, as well as the end of student loans as we know them. But, unfortunately, an entire generation of PhDs (and, one would think, the next generation coming through the ranks) have been punished economically by this system. Not only are we facing our loans (and the accrued interest), but we are also facing years of private debt accumulated over the years of low-paying adjunct work. To tell a new professor, you aren’t worth it, is a further insult, not to mention ignoring the very real fact that the (apparently) inflated salary is not enough to meet the student loan demands, career demands, and life demands.

We are not coming from schools where tuition could once be easily financed through summer jobs, nor from generous graduate programs that allowed you to live and work on your PhD. And most of us aren’t coming from economic circumstances where we have been supported financially by family. We come drowning in debt. And, as inflated as the salaries seem to the outside world, I’d like to introduce them to how much red ink is also peeking from behind.

I write this piece from experience. We are (thankfully, gratefully) a two-income household, both in higher education. My husband has a tenure-track position, while I am an instructor. Our combined salaries are really great-looking on paper. And yet, monthly, we wonder how we are going to make our student loan payments, our credit card payments, pay for our kids’ preschool, and have anything left over for savings. If something were to happen to one of us, like so many other families, we’d have nothing to fall back on, no cushion to catch us.

You might be tempted to throw an accusation at us that we lived beyond our means, and that this is all our own fault, but we believed in the myth of meritocracy and that all would be well once the Boomers retired. Student loans are the gateway drug to credit card debt as grad students: we take on these debt because we have been told over and over that it is “worth it” and will be rewarded with the job of our dreams at the end of it.

The authors call on all of us to see ourselves as public servants. And that’s fine, but more and more of the best and the brightest are leaving higher education because they can’t afford not to. Until the whole system is changed, this is a reality that just isn’t going to go away; it’s only going to get worse.

1 Comment on It is (still) all about the Money: Another Review of Higher Education?

  1. capandgown says:

    well said, it's a completely pernicious system in which everyone higher up the pecking order is incentivised to exploit those below. at the end of your piece i was wondering though – why DO you do it? possibly you will say, because you love it. I'm wondering when the tipping point comes : when love of one's job becomes the privilege of those who can afford it?