From Andrew Delbanco’s “The University in Trouble” in the NYRB:


For years, we have witnessed a growing gap between rich and poor colleges, the privatization of public universities, and aggressive if not reckless investment and spending practices at wealthy institutions, where the allure of gain appears to have overwhelmed the consciousness of risk. Now we are also witnessing drastic budget contraction at the most fragile and vulnerable institutions. Higher education has always been a mirror of American society—and, for the moment, at least, the image it reflects is not a pretty one.


Over the last three decades, the United States has been backtracking from its post–World War II commitment to expand access to college. Starting with the GI Bill, the immediate postwar decades had seen a huge infusion of federal money into old (by American standards) universities to support defense-related projects, including not only scientific training and research but language and area studies, as well as the creation of many new institutions—notably the two-year community colleges—aimed at providing virtually universal higher education. By the last quarter of the twentieth century, the United States led the world in the proportion of young people in college….But the public–private partnership that did much to democratize American higher education has been coming apart…In 2002, a federal advisory committee issued a report, aptly entitled “Empty Promises,” which estimated, according to Donald E. Heller, a leading authority on the economics of higher education, that “more than 400,000 students nationally from families with incomes below $50,000” met the standards of college admission “and yet were unable to enroll in a four-year college because of financial barriers….In short, bright and focused kids from poor families are going to college at the same rate as unfocused or low-scoring kids from families much better off.


This fact is an affront to America’s claim to be a nation of equal opportunity where talent and effort can overcome poverty and prejudice.


Favoring the rich is hardly an attitude exclusive to private institutions. At public universities, especially the flagship campuses where children of the affluent are most likely to go, the financing system is also regressive. Qualifying for state-subsidized tuition at UCLA or Berkeley requires no means-testing for California residents—with the result that the child of a public school teacher is likely to pay nearly the same amount as the child of a trust and estate attorney. All these distortions suggest that something is wrong with our system of higher education—starting, but not ending, at the top.


A couple of months ago I was asked to speak at a community college in a once-thriving, now-declining coastal town in southern New England. My subject was Abraham Lincoln, and I had no idea what degree of interest to expect from the students, many of whom were minorities, or recent immigrants, or the children of struggling blue-collar families. Even a year ago, I suspect, such a topic as Lincoln would not have attracted much interest. But the turnout on this occasion was surprisingly large and the students more than attentive. I sensed that the election of our first African-American president, his frequent invocations of Lincoln, and his own critical devotion to American ideals had encouraged these students —perhaps for the first time—to take a hopeful view of their own life chances and a real interest in the nation in which they found themselves coming of age.

Those who asked questions—ranging from a West Indian immigrant to a native New Englander—were astute and attuned to Lincoln’s struggle to reconcile his personal animus against slavery with his constraining sense of executive responsibility, to his changing views on the question of racial equality, and, above all, to his effort to defend and extend the idea of equal opportunity as the essential American promise. When I read aloud Lincoln’s words that “the leading object of government is, to elevate the condition of men—to lift artificial weights from all shoulders—to clear the paths of laudable pursuit for all—to afford all, an unfettered start, and a fair chance, in the race of life,” there was much nodding—not of the type that signifies the onset of sleep, but the type that expresses assent.

I came away that day—the college is facing severe budget cuts—with a painful sense of disjunction between rising hope and declining opportunity. I was reminded that we have in this country a highly stratified system of education in which “merit” is the ubiquitous slogan but disparity of opportunity is often the reality. Even with our best efforts, this fact is not likely to change fundamentally anytime soon. Indeed, the financial crisis has made it harder to change. But as we consider the future of the nation, which surely depends more than ever on an educated citizenry, it will be of great importance to keep in mind a point too little acted on during the boom years but now undeniable and urgent. John Adams put it succinctly some 225 years ago: “The whole people must take upon themselves the education of the whole people, and must be willing to bear the expense of it.”

Worth reading in full, of course, for the financial and social details.