The Education Impasse in the USA

As another school year starts, let’s take a few moments to reflect, however briefly, on the state of education in the United States. In times when Republicans and mainstream Democrats can’t seem to agree on much of anything, one issue oddly seems to unite them. That issue is education, specifically higher education. From both political fronts, there’s a mounting critique towards the university, public and private.

For starters, the average college degree (combining private and public) is about $35,000 per year. To put this in perspective, if the tuition trends keep up at the rate they’ve been going since 1982, a third grader today should expect to pay more than $306,000 for a private college and over $135,000 for in-state university.

But that’s not all, according to a Bloomsberg article published in 2012, college tuition increased by more than 1,200% since 1978.  The cost of college has risen faster than the price of cars, housing and even far outpaces medical expenses. There are many factors that explains this, but what has galvanized both the conservatives and liberals is the problematic of the sheer, exorbitant costs of tuition, which raises the question: Is college worth the investment? This question is even more acute when measuring the merits and learning outcomes of spending four years inside the Ivory Tower, which according to Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa’s book, Academically Adrift are incremental at best.

In the end, what we’re left with is a degree, but one that comes with a ball and chain of an average student loan debt of nearly $40,000, and very little to show for it. This outcome is only compounded by the fact that a staggering 34% of college graduates are underemployed, that is, their jobs don’t require a college degree, according to Preston Cooper of Forbes Magazine.

Although the critique is raised from both the liberal and the right political sectors, they dramatically diverge regarding their proposed solution to what many are calling the next economic bubble.

The standard Republican and Libertarian response goes something like this: “Don’t go to university, they’re full of liberals who want to turn us into socialists or worse. So just save your money, skip college and start earning right out of high-school if not before. In four years’ time,” so the argument goes, “you’ll have earn about $80,000 and you won’t be down $40,000 (in debt) giving you a whooping +$120,000 advantage over the brainwashed college graduate.” This line of reasoning is compelling to many, especially from poor and white working class families who tend to be already mired in debt and who think of the university as a liberal petri dish.

This position is supported by a recent survey of national trends that shows about 58% of GOP and leaning independents say that colleges have “a negative effect on the way things are going in the country.” In that same survey well over half of folks who voted for Trump claims the “4 year degree is not worth it.” And significantly enough, 66% of those identifying themselves a rural white working class also don’t believe university education is worth it. It should be noted that white men are far more skeptical of university education than white women; indeed according to The Atlantic, men are the new minority on college campuses as women make up 56% to just 44% of men currently enrolled.

As for the liberals, the argument is less about money and more about the ideal function of education in a free democracy. Under this view, education is an intrinsic value that provides both the individual and society the virtues of conscientious, second order thinking skills, skills that are an essential pillar to any healthy democracy.  They are essential because, according to this ideal, knowledge, just like elections, can hold power and interests groups in check. Historically, universities provide society with critical thinking skills and research that creates a deeper more cultured and informed citizenry who are less likely to fall for “fake news” and better able to decipher sound beneficial policies from those masquerading as good ones.

This education idealism was touted by the 3rd president of the United States and founder of the University of Virginia, Thomas Jefferson who believed an education is just as important to society as voting because research findings by professors provide the public a way to resist the potential tyranny of the corporate elite class (i.e., “Wall Street” in today’s parlance), which can easily neutralized oppositions and thus threaten the fragility of a democracy.

The critique from liberals is guided by an idealism, whereas from the right, the critique is framed in terms of an economic pragmatism tampered with a healthy dose of skepticism and fear. If we were to follow the right’s line of thinking, in just a few years, we would likely have even more citizens who were even less critical about ideas and thus even more likely to not question social policies but just accept them at face value. More than that, the only citizens who could attend university, under this right-wing view, would be from wealthier echelons of society, which over time creates knowledge hierarchies found in such bygone eras as the Middle Ages, and, according to some, in the Ivy League today. In the end, this solution to the crisis of higher education poses a deeper threat to a culture that is already much too much susceptible to biased entertainment that cheaply passes itself off for factual information and even journalism.

If the right-wing response to the crisis of higher education is dangerous than the liberal response finds itself floating away in the clouds in the shape of an ostrich with its proverbial head buried in the sand. Liberals may be correct in their idealism namely that the more educated the citizenry the better for democracy, but the means by which such a position is executed has quit literally dried up.  Mainstream, even Wall Street-backed, liberal idealism would only work if education were free or at least affordable to all qualified high-school graduates no matter their economic status. But given the massive cuts in public funding to universities since the early 1980s it doesn’t look like any shift in public policy is forthcoming anytime in the next generation. Just imagine a national campaign on the platform of affordable education, which to the ears of about 50% of the voting populous, sounds like higher taxes- the death keel for any policy. This may, in part, explain why the Bernie Sanders Democratic primary campaign so threatened the DNC corporate friendly platform.

But this still leaves us with no solution to the higher education crisis, or at least any solution that makes sense and is executable beyond the “no solution” impasse. And the point here is that both solutions to the higher education crisis from the conservatives and the mainstream liberal consensus are in fact not solutions at all.  The right wants to give up on educating the working and poor classes after high school, whereas the liberal position has become increasingly dangerous to the economic future of the younger generation via student debt.  In short, this inability to even address this crisis echoes the political deadlock that defines the topology of the United States today, which has only favored the Republican 1% agenda at the cost of de-educating the masses in order to denude any resistance to their elitist agenda.

For me, and an increasing number of professors, the solution is simple: either you increase public funding to universities, which doesn’t look likely anytime soon, or else you collectively create an alternative.

Citizens of any future democracy, it’s time to break this impasse by forming collective education alternatives like the one GCAS & GCAS College Dublin has created.

Creston Davis is the Founder and Director of GCAS. Along with Slavoj Zizek, Clayton Crockett, and Jeffrey Robbins, Creston currently co-edits Insurrections: Critical Studies in Religion, Politics & Culture (an academic book series published by Columbia University Press). He has published several books including Paul’s New Moment (with Slavoj Zizek & John Milbank), The Monstrosity of ChristHegel & the Infinite (with Zizek and Clayton Crockett), Theology & the Political (with Zizek and Milbank), Theology after Lacan: A Passion for the Real (with Marcus Pound and Crockett), and Contradiction & America (with Alain Badiou) forthcoming.