- Cracks in the Ivory Tower
Nov. 29, 2011 — It’s been a rough couple of weeks for student relations on college and university campuses. On Nov. 18, administrators at the University of California, Davis sought to quell a nonviolent Occupy Wall Street demonstration — in its first day — by calling in campus security, one of whom decided that emptying a can of pepper spray against students who posed no immediate threat was somehow a really awesome way to serve and protect.
A few days later, protests against tuition hikes and student loans led to clashes with police when students at City University of New York’s Baruch College sought to enter a campus building where the university’s trustees were holding a public hearing. Officers started hitting demonstrators with batons when the latter formed a line to push past them; according to an eyewitness quoted in The New York Times, one student’s head was bleeding after he was struck.
UC Davis, Baruch College and other schools — we’re looking at you, UC Berkeley — are facing a bit of an image problem in the wake of these incidents (and by “image problem” I mean these bastions of learning and free thinking are beginning to look like police states with the weakest sort of moral governance), but this is only one of the issues laid bare by the protests. Underpinning the demonstrations is a sense that an important social compact has been broken. Tuition and fees continue to rise but the perceived value of an education — in terms of job prospects — is falling fast. “Going to school and working hard” no longer holds the promise it once did.
And it’s not just the tangibles of higher education that have been called into question. At a recent rally to announce the launch of a “student-debt refusal campaign” — held in lower Manhattan’s Zuccotti Park, site of the original Occupy Wall Street encampment — a New York University senior described to The Chronicle of Higher Education how pressure to attend the “best” schools shapes students’ decisions about borrowing to pay for their education.
“People say, ‘Students choose to go to expensive schools,’ ” she said, “but students are constantly told, ‘This is what you need.’ It's a symbol, a prize.”
The student debt issue has proved one of the most divisive in the Occupy Wall Street and other, related protests, fueling criticisms of the demonstrators as privileged slugabeds complaining about debt they didn’t need to incur. But the issue isn’t the sole province of the upper-middle crust. Recent federal probes have focused on several for-profit schools accused of preying on the less well-off — using aggressive and even deceptive recruiting tactics, encouraging students to take out federal loans they likely won’t be able to repay, and making misrepresentations with respect to accreditation and graduation and placement rates.
The landscape of higher education is changing, dramatically, perhaps irrevocably. What remains to be seen is, what shape will it take? Who will be able to afford college degrees, and what schools — what types of schools — will they choose to attend? Who, if anyone, will be willing and able to take out loans to pay for their education? How will colleges and universities adapt to the ever-changing student demographic, and to a possible overall drop in enrollments? And how will all of this impact US competitiveness in the global marketplace — in science, technology, engineering & math (STEM) and otherwise? We’re all waiting to see, I’m sure.
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