Critical observers of U.S. higher education—of which there are far too few—have certainly seen it coming for years, perhaps decades. I think it might have finally sunk in for me when, within the space of but a few years, the ubiquitous “caf” was renamed the “dining facility,” dorm rooms that looked like what you’d get for third-class passage on a ship were replaced by suites, and the cavernous rubber-and-sweat-smelling gym was turned into a “fitness center,” often as well appointed as the local for-profit fitness club. Ironically, none of this coincided with an equally obvious renewed emphasis on teaching and learning. Those on the busy side of the podium at the front of the room might even have been able to discern, over this roughly 10-year revolution that swept American higher ed, an inverse relationship between enhanced non-academic facilities and students’ engagement.
The problem was, those who should have been keeping tabs on it all were the ones who stood to gain the most from it: the fitness club for students is open, usually free, to faculty; the house-beautiful dorm rooms are as much a badge of pride for bricks-and-mortar administrators as they are for the students who take up residence there; and, well, everyone has to eat, and adults no less than students prefer padded chairs to benches, small tables to row seating, and a nice cut of beef in the stroganoff to yesterday’s shepherd’s pie. Meanwhile, students and their parents paid more and more; the federal government released more and more funds in support of “higher education” in the form of grants and loans; and the institutions kept doing what institutions do best: engage in a Veblen-esque conspicuous grasp for the biggest piece of the pie they could get.
Which makes it, frankly, refreshing that someone, finally, has someone’s ear: the president’s. In an interview with college and university newspaper staffs from around the country yesterday, Mr. Obama shows that he: (a) is onto the federal gravy train that has allowed higher education costs to soar out of proportion; (b) understands the higher-ed “arms race” (if I may be permitted: in 1985, 25 years ago, the comprehensive annual cost of one, very nicely appointed private institution [VNAPI] which I was fortunate enough to attend was just less than a brand-new VW Golf—$8,750; today, while the equivalent 2010 Golf runs roughly $16K, the comprehensive cost of the same VNAPI is $47K); (c) rightly views spa-like accommodations on campus as having little to no bearing on the quality of education; and (d) wonders out loud whether “research” may have gotten in the way of teaching and learning. You can read more about Mr. Obama’s interview in the Around Washington column in today’s Inside Higher Ed.
What does this all mean? First, this may be the first time I’ve seen these issues addressed publicly by anyone in Washington, although, as I've mentioned, critical observers have long noted these matters privately and in smaller venues. Mr. Obama’s comments may bring some long-overdue and well-deserved attention to some of the real problems in higher education. Second, this portends a new era of what we’ve been arguing for here on RenMus, a leaner, meaner curriculum, the creation of a shared culture not based upon whether students have private bathrooms with Kohler fixtures but on what they read. Third and finally, perhaps the reign of the foxes is over in the chicken coop.
That said, the foxes will be foxes as long as they can—even if it means destroying the chicken coop. The higher education juggernaut will continue. But there is room—and it is widening—for a new way, for a return to a tightly managed curriculum taught by teachers to students who want to be...educated. And Lutheran higher education, with its unique Wittenberg intellectual apparatus, is poised like few others to deliver.