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Wednesday, January 9, 2008

Wednesday, January 9, 2008

Education for the Few

Business Week has published a piece with an excellent array of accessible statistics on the inequality boom in higher ed. It has a good first line too: "It's only fitting that Whitman College, Princeton's new student residence, is named for eBay (EBAY) CEO Meg Whitman, because it's a billionaire's mansion in the form of a dorm."

The "Ivy League plus" educates 1 percent of university students and now lives on a different financial planet from the rest of us. The implication is that higher ed no longer spreads prosperity, but simply reflects the widening class gaps in the United States, with Ivy-league college being just another luxury good solidifying and symbolizing elite status.

In the three decades after World War II, higher ed spread prosperity because it massively increased college enrollments at a fairly decent level of quality. Academic ambitions soared as enrollments did, and quality steadily improved for the broad middle classes. The BW piece points out that in contrast, the Ivies Plus have actually reduced their undergrad enrollments by about six percent over the last ten years.

At one point, the article asks, will the "benefits to society outweigh the damage to the public universities [the Ivies] are stripping of star professors, who tend to take their outside research money with them when they go?" The obvious answer is no: public benefits are mass benefits, not benefits to the top 1 percent.

The heads of some huge public research universities replied with a good description of their lives with continuous public funding cuts, and an eloquent appeal for proper public funding.

Let's hope this kind of letter starts to work better now than it has over the last twenty-five yers. If the public research universities don't get the public funding they need, most will become regional schools for students tracked into 2nd, 3rd, and 4th-rung salaries, while both economic and research productivity decline for the country as a whole.

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