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After the Ivory Tower Falls

A book review.

A mere 63 percent of U.S. high school graduates enrolled directly in college in 2020---a decline from 70 percent just four years earlier. What's going on? Covid? And maybe more temptation to go directly to the shop or assembly line, given a booming job market?

Well, it's a little more complicated than just Covid, and besides, workforce participation is also down. How about another reason? Could higher education simply be a sucker's deal for many young people? And could the cost of college, and the burden of related debts, be widening cultural divides—not just among college graduates and non-grads but also Ivy Leaguers and non-Ivy Leaguers?  

Philadelphia Inquirer columnist Will Bunch, a college founder's grandson who wrote After the Ivory Tower Falls, joins the skeptics in calling for major changes. His grandmother began a small for-profit Illinois college---hardly Harvard but respectable and accredited---without having gone past high school. But badly crafted laws promoted the rise of diploma mills and hastened the end of Midstate College to some extent. Midstate, training students for such jobs as flight attendant, competed against greedsters hawking their wares through "high-pressure Glengarry Glen Ross-style boiler rooms." Enrollment declined, and Midstate went bankrupt for other reasons. But if nothing else, the mills cheapened the value of education in general, especially for the sons and daughters of blue-collar workers.

In After the Ivory Tower Falls, Bunch among other things tells of students accumulating thousands of dollars in debt and either not graduating from the mills or not finding work after receiving fifth-rate training or education. The damage lingers. While I was writing this review, I read of the U.S. Department of Education canceling loans for 208,000 borrowers whom the ITT Technical Institute had defrauded. As reported by CNBC, "the relief totals $3.9 billion." Imagine---just one sleazy underperforming institution!

Among the main strengths of this important, highly readable book is its history of how we got into the mess in the first place. We blew our chance by not making higher education more of a tax-supported public good with academic values prevailing over commercial ones. The GI Bill and other measures helped, but what if the aid had been even more extensive with far less reliance on the marketplace? Even elite Ivy schools got caught up in the mania---wildly overpaying administrators and indulging in ever-more-expensive dorms and gyms and other luxuries to compete for the students from well-off families most likely to donate. So much for the poor and middle class, even with scholarships. The result was that America squandered brainpower.

How to respond? Bunch thinks that merely cancelling college debts would hardly lead by itself to a nirvana---especially given the resentments arising among college grads who saved, or Americans who never got a chance to go to college in the first place. As shown by an August 25 column, he approves of the Biden Administration’s forgiveness of several hundred billion in student debt but notes that it’s just a fraction of the total of more than $1.75 trillion. 

He also favors far more resources for trade schools for young people not interested in or suited for college. Perhaps most of all, he dreams of "universal schooling or training benefits for all young adults, funded as a public good and not as a high stakes pass/fail test of self worth, centering critical thinking and civic engagement over rote workforce development." He also delves into the possibility of universal national service, not just limited to the military.

I like Bunch's goals. The question is whether they can be achieved in the current political landscape, especially with the low likelihood of military spending being dramatically reduced in the near future. Still the threats to Ukraine and Taiwan will not last forever, and maybe, just maybe, the Middle East will cool down in time. There is also the possibility of short-changed Americans eventually garnering enough clout to change the tax laws to support both the world's most powerful military and free higher education and vocational training.

One way or another, I hope that the basic visions of Bunch and the likeminded can be realities in time. Meanwhile, in diagnosing the many evils of the current system, he has given us a good laundry list of what not to do in the future.

Click Here for an in-depth video interview with Will Bunch.

After the Ivory Tower Falls: How College Broke the American Dream and Blew Up Our Politics"and How to Fix It
Will Bunch

David H. Rothman's latest book is Drone Child: A Novel of War, Family, and Survival (originally titled No Taller than My Gun). A longer version of this review appeared in OpEdNews.