The Covid pandemic threw a harsh spotlight on higher education in America, exposing forces eating away at the foundations of college and university learning, calling into question the traditional purposes of such education in our post-modern, high-tech society.

The list of forces requiring us to re-think American higher education is large and complex. This essay focuses on two principal factors: money and politics, especially on how they impact liberal arts education. Money and politics have essentially split off the liberal arts – the traditional heart of the college core — into a separate, isolated, shrinking realm.

MONEY: Paradigm Shift from Learner to Consumer.

The costs of receiving a college education at private universities have risen rapidly. The undergraduate tuition at the University of Chicago for a full-time student in 1970 was $2,400, equivalent to around $16,000 in today’s dollars. Today the tuition is $64,260 for an academic year. If we add fees and room and board, the tally is around $90,000. Estimates anticipate $100,000 per year costs by 2025. The cost of tuition at Loyola University Chicago in 1970 was $1,900 per academic year, around $15,000 in today’s dollars. Tuition at Loyola Chicago today is $50,270.

Costs at public universities also rose well beyond the rate of inflation. In the 1960s most U.S. public universities did not charge tuition. World renowned Berkeley University, the flagship of the University of California system, did not charge tuition until 1970. Today, Berkeley tuition charges for a full-time California resident are $13,510 per academic year. For non-residents, tuition is $34,742. In 1970 tuition for a full time Illinois resident at the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign [UIUC] was $540 for an academic year, $3,500 in 2023 dollars. Today, UIUC tuition is $17,572. These tuition costs do not include other education related fees or room and board charges which contribute significantly to total yearly costs.

The Board of Regents of the University of California system imposed tuition charges because the State of California was facing a budget deficit of one billion dollars. This financial crisis called into question the whole idea of free public higher education, an idea that had been the foundation of the California university system since 1848. The decision to charge tuition represented not just an economic development but a philosophical change in our society.

As state funding for public higher education decreased, costs of providing education on the college and university levels escalated. In response to rapidly changing technologies and social conditions, American higher education became more dependent on federal and private funding — especially for research universities – tuition costs soared in response to federal requirements, student demands for improved services and comfortable accommodations, and grantor expectations.

As my colleague Michael Garanzini,SJ, president of the Association of Jesuit Colleges and Universities, aptly puts it: “The market model, which dominates American society, was inappropriately applied to American higher education, making the student a consumer and the university the producer.” In Garanzini’s judgement, this paradigm shift, which took root in the 1970s, has triumphed today, changing the culture of the college environment for both students and the faculty. In the market model, the academic community is no longer a community of learners – students and faculty united by a common desire to learn and discover — but an aggregated grouping of consumers and providers.

Most monies for higher education are directed to STEM education [science, technology, engineering, mathematics]. Most students today, given the high costs of college education, focus on employment as the primary goal of their college education, choosing business, technology, or other professional areas of study and training. In the 1970s English and Philosophy were popular subjects; students were eager to explore questions of values and meaning in their own existential situations as well as prepare themselves for gainful and meaningful employment.

Again, to paraphrase Garanzini: The reduction of the student as learner to the student as consumer severs the essential relationship of the student to our civil society and to the very idea of a common good. The student as a consumer of higher education becomes an isolated individual in the market place; the college becomes a producer of job prospects.

The consumer model also severs the essential relationship of the liberal arts to science, mathematics, engineering, and technology. In this environment where the student, the customer, is primarily concerned with securing a job, it is almost impossible for the small liberal arts college to exist.

POLITICS: Tenure, Freedom of Inquiry, Freedom of Expression under Attack.

This Spring, Florida and Texas passed laws prohibiting diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) initiatives in public colleges and universities. The Florida law also prohibits general education courses from teaching “identity politics” or “critical race theory.” Both states passed legislation giving the state legislatures jurisdiction over faculty appointments and tenure in state supported institutions of higher learning. Through this legislation, tenure appointments can be reviewed and tenured faculty can be dismissed by state representatives for violations of state directives.

Tenure has been entirely eliminated in ten U.S. colleges and universities. Tenure track positions for all new faculty have been eliminated in five universities. According to the American Association of University Professors, at least 70 % of faculty work in non-tenure track or adjunct positions.

In the market model, most faculty are employees who are hired and fired in response to market pressures. In this vortex of competing forces, the voices of the traditional liberal arts which raise and explore the issues of value and meaning are utterly silenced. The traditional marriage of the liberal arts and the sciences in the complete education of the whole person has been dissolved – to the detriment of both.

In the development of the idea of a university in Western Civilization, the corporate faculty of the collegium appoints its membership and determines the content of its academic instruction. The jurisdiction of the college over its members, their courses, and their free and open conversation protected the college from the dictates of the State, of the Church, and of other powers seeking to control the university.

Tenure is the job security that enables the scholars – students and faculty alike – to freely exercise their right to study and speak.

The legislation passed in the States of Texas and Florida violates the charter of what it means to be a college; it destroys the very idea of a university by dividing the university into competing faculties. Today, institutions of higher education represent more a collection of semi-autonomous fiefdoms, focused on their own domains, and isolated from the common university community and the common conversation that community requires.

STEM = STEAM: The College Core Should Include the Sciences and the Liberal Arts Together.

Science and mathematics are human values. Their practice is a liberal art that embodies the principles of freedom of inquiry and freedom of expression which are essential to their methods and development.

U.S. higher education has been one of the greatest achievements of American civil society. Hundreds of thousands of students – and thousands of scholars — have flocked to our universities to enjoy the freedom of inquiry and expression that are the basis of our wealth and values.

The focus on STEM and preparation for the job market should not occur at the expense of the liberal arts. On the contrary, scientists, artists, humanists, engineers, health professionals, business leaders, IT creators, all need one another now more than ever. Values and meaning are essential to all human endeavors.

As we celebrate our freedoms this Fourth of July 2023, let us recognize that the unfettered pursuit of truth is the bedrock of our civilization.

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Originally published 2023 Windy City Times Media Group Chicago