Thursday, November 29, 2012

other campuses' children

If you read Inside Higher Ed or other sources that cover "higher education," you learn that there are scandals low and high surrounding America's colleges and universities--high-level appointments without the degrees their resumes state, scandalously low adjunct pay, college degrees that lead to nothing but unpaid student loans, and much more. So Penn State's Jerry Sandusky problem is certainly news in terms of the extent of the egregiousness, but it is not the first university to invoke a "conspiracy of silence" as part of its long-term strategic plan.

(The newly indited Graham Spanier, like Sandusky now in a Pennsylvania prison with death-row inmates, continues to deny everything and vigorously defend himself as an expert sociologist who was an abused child himself and thus would never allow such crimes to occur under his watch. It very much should be understood that he, like everyone else, is innocent until proven guilty, and yet the facts that can be verified along with the economic inequalities of the whole situation--from the most disadvantaged boys being the victims to the highest paid administrators and coaches as the accused-- reminds us of the inequalities and cruelties of the entire country, and how higher education, from at least one angle, can be seen to support and even exacerbate this economic status quo.)

Somewhat like Penn State, but perhaps so much more typical in that rapes of enrolled adults are known to occur on college campuses, is the news from Amherst College that while a traumatized young woman left school demoralized and without a degree, her rapist went on to graduate with honors.

And then, closer to home for me, at Wesleyan University, like Amherst, part of the "little three," rape wasn't in the news, but President Roth announced that the school was no longer offering need-blind admission. On the one hand, when I read this I had to chuckle because no matter what anyone has ever said, it was always beneficial if your parents could pay for college when it was time for the elite "need blind" schools to pluck kids off the waiting lists, and just by random chance, year after year, almost all of these schools have been enrolling about half a student body that can pay the entire nut outright. It's not until you graduate and see your peers driving off in brand-new SUVs that you see the full impact of economic inequality on American higher education as it's currently practiced.

But still, I should be grateful, and I am, because I certainly would not have attended Wesleyan if they had not generously recomputed my financial aid package after my father lost a "good job" after we had sent in the initial forms. And I had worked a lot in high school, and saved, and so I had a chance to pay for a huge chunk of my fourth choice's costs and go on to poison my brain with Marx, Melville, Nieztsche, and more. (I'm sure there'd be no Fight for Your Long Day or teaching life were it not for Wesleyan University and what I read and saw there.)

$80,000 for four years of a private liberal arts college seemed like an amazing sum back then, and I can only imagine what students and their parents are thinking about the $120,000 that they can pay for total costs for even in-state tuition, room, and board at our "flagship" public universities these days. An adult student I spoke with at Clemson told me his in-state, full-time tuition is $6,000 a semester, which would be under $50,000 for four years and a relatively fair, if not invariably affordable, amount to pay for what's supposed to be a Top-25 state school.

A lot of people seem so happy to have Sandusky in jail, but the scary thing is that those alleged criminals at Penn State likely kept silent not because of loyalty to Sandusky but because they felt the university would lose revenue, and they understood that it's revenue that can pay salaries for quality faculty, technology, group health insurance, and more while it also gives some nonwealthy Americans a better chance to earn an affordable college degree.

But tossing the pedophile in the pokey and throwing away the key doesn't resolve higher education's inaccessibity issues, and we're left in a world where Wesleyan could be setting a trend toward a "new normal," which of course is a return to the old model, of elite colleges not acting as democratic institutions but as exclusive clubs for the young and rich. As a country, we seem to be continuing an antidemocratic trend away from equal access and affordability.

To me, this is not America, at least not the country we were taught to believe in. Which quite possibly means this is America.


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