Dear Commons Community,
Michael S. Roth, president of Wesleyan University, had an essay in The Chronicle of Higher Education earlier this week assessing President Obama’s legacy on higher education. Entitled, Barack Obama’s Imprint on Higher Education, he covered a lot of ground related to equal opportunity, financial aid, college readiness, the College Scorecard, commodification and the liberal arts. Here is an excerpt:
“In his first months in office, President Obama announced a series of measures that he described as “the most significant efforts to open the doors of college to middle-class Americans since the GI Bill.” In vowing to reverse the trend that had made colleges — public and private — less and less affordable to more and more people, he articulated a “North Star goal” for the country: to have the highest proportion of college graduates in the world by 2020.
Eight years later, the United States has seen only modest gains in educational attainment, and there is little change in our relative position in this regard. Does this make the Obama legacy a failure? I don’t think so. The Obamas have made a strong case for the value of higher education, and they’ve done it during a period of disinvestment by states in their university systems and intense criticism of higher education generally. Silicon Valley gurus and higher-education journalists (who themselves have college diplomas) write about the oddity of students getting degrees that don’t have a direct connection to their jobs. Pulling the ladder up after they’ve already made the climb, they claim not to see why future students would want the same opportunities that they’ve had.
The headwinds against higher education are strong, and they aren’t all economic. As Jonathan Cole notes in his recent book, Toward a More Perfect University, there is a deep deficit of trust in American higher education, despite the fact that our universities remain great forces for scientific, economic, and cultural innovation. If you type “is college” in Google, what very likely pops up (before you hit the search key) is “worth it?”
The administration was wrong to narrow the value of a college degree to a salary-based return on investment, but there would be even more skepticism about higher education without the Obamas’ support for “reaching higher” through learning. Sure college should prepare people for work, but it can do so in the context of preparing them for life beyond the university. American thinkers like Benjamin Franklin and W.E.B. DuBois, Jane Addams and Martha Nussbaum would agree.
The Obama administration has largely stood against the tide of false populism that would deny a college education to young people because of our “new economy.” The willingness today on the part of some to limit higher education to only certain students or to constrict the college curriculum to a neat, instrumental itinerary is deplorable; and to succumb to it would run counter to a deep American tradition of broadly pragmatic, liberal learning.”
Dr. Roth’s essay is a fair review of the Obama legacy and provides lots of food for thought on where American higher education is heading as a result of President Obama’s policies and positions.
The recent edition of The Chronicle has responses to Roth’s essay from Danielle Allen, Janet Halley, Raynard S. Kington, Anthony P. Carnevale, Marta Tienda, and Jamie Merisotis.