Thursday, June 29, 2023

A People's History of Higher Education in the US?

[Editor's Note: What we saw today at the US Supreme Court--with the end of affirmative action in college enrollment--is horrible but not shocking.  The History of Higher Education in the US over the last four centuries is worse than horrible--from a People's perspective. In many cases it has been horrifying. Some of it has been documented.  Much of it has not. No one has documented the full-length of the terrain, the voyage that got us here, or to what may lie ahead. Looking in the mirror, and at the injustice, what do you see?]  

A People's History of US Higher Education is sorely needed, not as a purely academic work to gather dust on shelves, or as internet click bait, but as a way to assess how our nation moves forward as a democracy--or as something less. To make history, it's helpful to know (real) history: the history of working-class (and middle-class) struggles. 

The college and university industry faces enormous challenges in the coming years, and an elitist perspective that is taught in higher education perpetuates this societal mess: one of monumental (and widely acceptable) selfishness and greed, increasing inequality (see graph below) and reduced social mobility, decreasing life expectancy, lack of transparency and accountability followed by trillions in government bailouts to the rich, and profound environmental destruction. 

A Sketch of the Current Terrain

At the front end of the higher ed pipeline, the US is not producing enough domestic students with the resources or skills to succeed in college and beyond. Much of this is related to "savage inequalities" in the K-12 system (and throughout society) that have never been remedied. And in 2026 we expect an enrollment cliff to occur, a ripple effect of the 2008 Great Recession.

Community colleges and second-tier state universities--once considered the backbone of increasing democracy and social mobility, have faced declining revenues, lower enrollment, and public defunding for more than a decade.   

Adjuncts have become the "new faculty majority"--a trend moving that way for several decades--with little resistance.  Labor has had a few recent victories at elite schools, but it remains to be seen how strong this movement will become and whether it will spread to lower rung institutions.

Drug and alcohol abuse, sexual coercion and assault, bullying, and other forms of violence and brutality are long-standing parts of the US higher ed landscape that have not been fully dealt with.

Millions of folks are learning exclusively online. Subprime robocolleges (like the University of Phoenix, Purdue University Global, and University of Arizona Global Campus) and Online Program Managers (OPMs) have replaced traditional universities with little information about their value or effectiveness.  Those schools flood the internet with targeted ads.  

White supremacy and anti-intellectualism have regained popularity, with the higher education policies of Ron DeSantis in Florida, Greg Abbott in Texas, and Sarah Huckabee-Sanders in Arkansas. The Supreme Court has also spoken recently--ending affirmative action for people of color. Legacies and other meritless preferences for the more rich and powerful remain.   

Mergers, acquisitions, and campus closings are commonplace as schools compete for a smaller number of students and an even smaller number that can pay the full amount for tuition, room and board, fees, and living expenses. 

Elite universities are financial and industrial centers, scooping up (and stealing) land, investing billions overseas and paying few taxes, and hiring foreign workers instead of Americans.  

At the end of the pipeline, US higher education may be educating the world's elites, but higher ed and the larger society are not producing enough skilled workers/good jobs for Americans. There is a growing educated underclass, people who are working but are not working in areas that they had hoped for. There are many bullsh*t jobs out there. And many gig jobs with no benefits. And there are jobs that require long hours and difficult conditions, forcing people to choose between the personal and professional. Some folks are doubling down for career advancement, borrowing (sometimes unwisely) for graduate school. 

Student loan debt makes college graduates captive to the corporations who are willing to hire them--and subject to dismissal whenever they are no longer helping them make a profit. Even at non-profits this is the case. Crushing debt results in people who decide (logically) not to marry, not to have children--at the expense of being labeled as criminals and deviants. The Republican Supreme Court will soon weigh in on the subject and likely determine that debt relief would not be fair to others--presumably the wealthy and powerful that the Justices represent.  

Let's be clear.  Higher education in the United States has always reflected and reinforced a larger (sick) society and its ills. Its beginnings and much of its history are deeply rooted in white supremacy, patriarchy, and classism-- through land theft, genocide, worker oppression, and exclusion. 

There have been many excellent critical accounts of higher education over the last century, from Upton Sinclair's The Goosestep (1923) to Craig Steven Wilder's Ebony and Ivy (2013) to Gary Roth's The Educated Underclass (2019).  Recent books have also examined elite universities, state universities, and for-profit colleges and their predatory practices. But few if any assess the dark landscape from start to finish. 

A Sketch of Where the US Has Been

In the 1600s and 1700s, elite eastern schools like Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Brown, and Georgetown were constructed on stolen land. The leaders of the exclusive white male schools held people captive in order to keep the schools running. All the students were white men or people who had to assimilate into the world of white supremacy. The schools also taught religious ideologies to rationalize their crimes against humanity.  What was it like for an indigenous person, an enslaved person, or a servant at one of these schools? How brutal was college life in those times?  

Government intervention was essential to increasing opportunity. After the Civil War, Historically Black Colleges and Universities enabled some African Americans to get a higher education. State universities and teacher's colleges also emerged with the promise of educating and empowering more citizens. And even then, land for state universities came from land theft of indigenous nations. Financial and industrial robber barons (men who stole wholesale from workers and their families), subsidized and controlled elite higher private higher education. These men included Leland Stanford, John D. Rockefeller, and Andrew Carnegie.  

Government funding through the post-World War II GI Bill increased enrollment (but disproportionate opportunity for white men) during the late 1940s and 1950s. The 1960s reflected a time of rebellion, greater access, and a movement toward equality. The Black Panthers, for example, challenged white supremacy at Merritt College and San Francisco State. But those days seem to be from a bygone era--a moment of opportunity lost. We do have some accounts of students and teachers, but is there one place we can find what life was like in junior colleges and lesser known state universities? 

Were the 1960s an anomaly? In 2023, it certainly appears so. For those activists who remember those times well enough, and remember the progress, it may be disheartening. Many citizens today are too young or not as well informed. Over the decades, even more have been disinformed--lied to--by elitist revisions of history.  

Battling the Business of Higher Education

Since the 1980s, US higher education has increasingly reflected and reinforced a nation of privatization, government austerity and lack of oversight, and social class exclusion. Elite credentials are used to discriminate in career fields (like law) where there is an oversupply; other careers (like nursing) are also hamstrung by hyper-credentialism--creating artificial shortages. 

Progressive organizations have been largely ineffective in battling strengthening corporate forces on campus.  The Fed and other organizations continue to sell the idea of more higher education for all, as millions face a lifetime of debt peonage.  There have been some heroes on the People's side, but they have been largely ignored by the mainstream media--which largely writes from an elitist perspective. 

We are now more than four decades into this neoliberal era. Higher education has changed, yet it still reflects much of what is wrong with America. Working class folks, and even many middle-class consumers are increasingly wary of higher education--whether it's worth buying into.  In some cases, edtech has reduced our Quality of Life. Is there anyone with enough energy, resources, and courage to document it all?  And can it be done from the perspective of the People--for the good of the People?  

Related links: 

HEI Resources

US Higher Education and the Intellectualization of White Supremacy

One Fascism or Two?: The Reemergence of "Fascism(s)" in US Higher Education

"Let's all pretend we couldn't see it coming" (The US Working-Class Depression)

The Tragedy of Human Capital Theory in Higher Education (Glen McGhee)

The College Dream is Over (Gary Roth) 

Erica Gallagher Speaks Out About 2U's Shady Practices at Department of Education Virtual Listening Meeting 

I Went on Strike to Cancel My Student Debt and Won. Every Debtor Deserves the Same. (Ann Bowers)




  1. This would be a great project to undertake, Dahn.

    1. And an opening to discuss the future of higher education in detail.

    2. Very necessary. I rely on history for my work.