Short answer: Money, and entitlement.
Wait!, you say. Whose money? Whose entitlement? Well, I suppose I could elaborate, but be warned: when it comes to educational inequity, I do tend to go on. So pour yourself another cup of coffee and settle in for ten minutes or so.
Ready? Okay, here goes:
Historiann's call for bloggers to address the question in the title of this post, in response to Tony Grafton's recent piece on the spate of books attempting to answer the same question couldn't have come at a better time for me. You see, just these past few weeks I've been considering the matter, prompted by the Occupy Wall Street movement, whose complaints about the systemic nature of economic inequality in the U.S. were recently reinforced by a report of the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office. I teach at a mid-tier public university, where most of our students work part- to full-time, and many are first-generation college students. Our faculty come from a variety of socio-economic backgrounds, but many have terminal degrees from elite universities, so they know their stuff -- we're hiring smart people. More importantly to the point of this post, many are the prodcut of undergraduate educations at small liberal arts colleges (my own had a student-to-faculty ratio of 12:1, I think), so they know what's possible with good teaching practices.
So if any institution should be positioned to help the 99-percenters (or let's call them 95-percenters, in the case of education) bridge the gap, it's us. And yet, because we are part of a large state system, and thus are dependent on shrinking public funding, we are instead emblematic of a two-tiered educational system that perpetuates that gap, and may even be widening it.
Grafton notes that most books critical of higher education fall into the trap of looking for the Bad Guy. Some blame entitled, lazy, out-of-touch faculty who can't be bothered to teach, and wouldn't know how even if they were made to. Others decry the ever-increasing number of administrators, vastly overpaid, blindly bound to a business mentality that has nothing to do with the mission of higher education, who impose reams of assessment paperwork on faculty in order to numerically prove that learning is taking place. Still others lament that today's students arrive at college coddled, unprepared, and aimless, and gravitate towards "pre-professional" majors that sell job training as education, and are short-sighted to think the goal is the piece of paper at the end, rather than the challenge and growth that gets them there. Grafton argues that all of these may be factors, but warns against the monocausal explanation, and for the most part, I think he's right.
Except when it comes to money.
On that note, Grafton also takes on the "rising costs" issue, as addressed by the authors he evaluates. But unlike those authors, he suggests that the high price tag at these elite schools often (though not always) pays for better educational quality for the students: wealth starting out will facilitate your entry into a more intellectually rigorous and nurturing (no, those two are not mutually exclusive) educational system.
To put it more bluntly than Grafton may be comfortable with: anyone who thinks that higher education is the last meritocracy is fooling themselves. I've seen a number of incredibly gifted students come through my classrooms. These students are here, rather than Oberlin or Williams or Swarthmore or Reed or whatever, because they don't come from a privileged background, and our in-state tuition is about 15% of what those schools charge. Some others arrive vastly underprepared for college, and struggle to get passing grades, and some fail to finish. But mostly we have a broad and varied middle of average students, some of whom have the potential to be very good, given the proper resources and attention. Over the years (and more often in recent years), I've seen some of them become aware of what they're being deprived of: "I've never had someone write so many comments on my paper!" "It's really frustrating to be the only person talking... I don't think that most people did more than a couple pages of the reading." "Wow! Thanks! That [half-hour one-on-one paper conference] really helped – I think I get it now." And heartbreakingly, one time, from a junior (or was she a senior?): "I've never been to a professor's office hours before – I guess I didn't know I could... or maybe I was a little scared."
Too often, whatever native ability these students have is not going to be properly nurtured, because in a university of over 30,000 students, where tenure-track faculty teach 80-150 students a semester without T.A.s or grading assistance or the like, and the lecturers who make up 50-60% of our staff teach much more than that (because at $3-5K a course, you've got to teach about 5-6 courses a semester just to make ends meet, often shuttling between our university and some other to do so, and your fancy Ph.D. and two bucks will buy you a cup of coffee), it's likely that nobody will notice that spark of brilliance in time to fan it into a flame before it dies. So the capable students coast, or they lose interest, and only rarely do they have a background of experience to know to push themselves, and to ask us for support when they do -- in other words, to demand for themselves what the five-percenters take as a given. In the meantime, they hold down 20 hour-a-week jobs to pay their ever-increasing tuition, and start to look approvingly at online courses because that would enable them to take on extra hours at work to foot the bill, since in institutions like mine, the students are picking up their own tab. And they emerge with an education that looks even less like the one their five-percenter peers receive. And so the cycle continues.
And the taxpayers and their elected representatives wring their hands, and say that the public universities are failing the students, and respond with more numerically-based assessment, and criticize faculty for spending what they see as too little time with students, and increase teaching loads and class sizes, and withdraw more funding, and leave administrations to rely more on adjunct labor and online classes in order to make budget. And so that cycle continues, too.
So what's the solution, for an institution like mine? It lies not in the professors, most of whom are committed to good teaching and good research (until they are too exhausted to do either) and who receive, at most, one course off per year for maintaining an active research agenda. Nor do I want to blame the students, most of whom have precisely the level of commitment and seriousness of purpose and focus on the journey rather than the finish line that almost all of us had at age nineteen. Administrators? Yes, we may complain of bloated salaries at the top, but the vast majority are paid middle-class salaries or less, and are trying to do the difficult job of making ends meet and serving the interests of students and faculty (both of whom can get a bit entitled from time to time) while keeping on top of the latest paperwork requirement to come out of the state capital, all on whatever shoestring budget the institution has to work with in any given year.
In my view, the solution lies in a state's voters deciding that they want to support high-quality education for all who qualify – and by "support," I don't mean buying a bumper sticker or clicking "like" on some Facebook page... or even writing a blog post, I suppose. I'm talking about the kind of support that you can stick into a bank account. This requires sacrifice, and, sad to say, this is not a political or cultural climate that favors personal sacrifice for faceless others or a commitment to the common good that extends beyond oneself and one's immediate circle.
In short: We have met the enemy, and he is us. The problem is indeed entitlement, but it's not that of students or faculty. It's a larger sense that we are entitled to the benefits of society without any corresponding obligations. As Grafton notes, "those already born into the wealthy and professional classes benefit disproportionately from the best educations." We can't rail about economic inequities á là OWS one minute, then demand cuts in public spending the next. We can't support obsessive multiple-choice testing and reports in an attempt to quantify learning, then complain that students don't think critically. We can't keep depending on low-paid contingent labor in huge classes, then blame professors and instructors for not providing the same education as an expensive small college provides. We can't increase class sizes or move to online educational models to save money, then wonder that students who go through this system aren't achieving the same graduation rates or post-graduation results as their peers at elite schools.
We find ourselves facing a choice: use education to expand opportunity and equality, or let it become another area where we let the wealthy have the best, and the rest can take whatever's left over. But let me underline something there: WE HAVE A CHOICE. We are not victims here, unless we choose to sit by and let short-sighted thinking undermine our most idealistic goals. We, as a society, need to take some accountability and realize that, whatever happens, we will get the system we pay for, and the results that we deserve.