College: A Necessary Evil?

Saybrook_Misfortune of Knowing Blog

My twins have only half a year of kindergarten under their belts, but they’re already thinking about college. Apart from asking repeatedly whether they can attend the same school, their biggest concern about their future college(s) is proximity to home. Both are only interested in schools that are walking distance, which keeps the list at exactly zero institutions. Their priorities will change as they get older — I’m keeping my fingers crossed that they’ll at least stay within 300 miles of home — but at least we still have a decade to go before we actually have to start thinking about college visits and applications.

But that doesn’t stop me from quietly worrying about it now. A bachelor of arts has become the new minimum requirement for even low-wage, low-skilled jobs, while the cost of receiving that line on a resume continues to increase faster than inflation. My freshman year of college (a billion fifteen years ago) cost roughly $31,940 for tuition, room, and board; the same school costs roughly $58,060 for a single year now, and, if my children end up there, is projected to be around $75,198 for just one of them for just one year.

Meanwhile, with each publicized Office for Civil Rights (OCR) complaint alleging poor institutional responses to campus sexual harassment and sexual assault, I become increasingly uncomfortable about sending my children to just about anywhere. Even my own alma mater, where I spent four happy years, entered into a voluntary agreement with OCR for alleged violations of Title IX, a federal law that prohibits sex discrimination in education, and was fined for violations of the Clery Act, a federal law that requires colleges and universities to disclose crime statistics. Over the last few years, many brave undergraduate students from schools across the country have come forward to describe environments where institutions protected perpetrators of sexual assaults.

Toxic climates of harassment and bullying also plague graduate programs, with the most recent high profile example coming to light after the American Philosophical Association’s Committee on the Status of Women released an indictment of a philosophy department at the end of January. The report said that the department “has maintained an overall environment with unacceptable sexual harassment, inappropriate sexualized unprofessional behavior, and divisive uncivil behavior,” among having other problems that may amount to violations of Title IX and Title VII, which prohibits sex discrimination in employment.

These federal laws–Title VII, Title IX, and the Clery Act–have been on the books for decades, but colleges and universities remain bastions of sexism, in part thanks to courts that have turned a blind eye to discriminatory behavior under the guise of doctrines like “academic deference.”

I have seen this toxic climate poison the academic ambitions of several people I know personally, who might have endured the bullying and harassment in the ivory tower had it not been for the overt exploitation of their labor. While most universities claim a public mission and are non-profits, they are becoming increasingly run like corporations with a revenue-generating motive that often leads them to exploit their employees.* So, the tenure-track jobs disappear in favor of yearly contract work with limited benefits, relatively low pay, and no job security.

It is for academics thinking about fleeing these harsh realities that Kathleen Miller, Julie Chmiel, Lauren Whitehead, and Jet published Moving On: Essays on the Aftermath of Leaving Academia, a series of personal stories about leaving the ivory tower. I am not this book’s intended audience–I am a lawyer–but I follow one of the contributors, Elizabeth Freudenthal, on WordPress, and wondered whether this book would give me insight into the crumbling institution that will eventually receive hundreds of thousands of dollars from my family when my three children finally leave home.

It’s an interesting collection of experiences that runs the gamut from individuals who completed a few years of graduate school to those who completed their doctorates only to land at inhospitable faculty positions. Each author describes the circumstances surrounding his or her decision to leave academia, many of them discussing how difficult it was to put their academic dreams behind them, and several touched on issues of sexism, incivility, and exploitation in academia. The authors created this book “to show that there is life after graduate school. There is life after adjuncthood. And there is even life after the tenure-track.” The book is a hopeful compilation of stories for disillusioned academics, its intended audience, but a depressing one for those who want a robust academia that encourages the best scholarship and provides the best learning environments for our children.

I have little hope that, in the twelve years between now and when I will most likely have to write my first tuition check, there will be substantial improvement on college campuses. I will only want to send my children to universities with higher levels of tenured and tenure-track faculty and with lower levels of (and better responses to) sexual harassment and assault. I suppose I am prepared to choose the least evil of our institutions (to extent I know their sins), but I fear that all universities will be equally bad. It seems to be a race to the bottom.

*Speaking of how universities are run, I was shocked to learn that a university I pass every day on my commute to and from work has a Trustee whose background is listed only as a “tourist.” I was further shocked to learn that this “tourist” was a chairman and chief financial officer who allegedly ran a bank into the ground by jacking up interest rates on small business customers and so was sued by the FDIC. Does this sound like someone who should be part of a team running a major institution of higher learning?


  1. This makes me so, so sad. Sad that you’d even have to consider the likelihood of sexual assault when choosing a college; sad that the cost is sky-rocketing; and sad that you’re spot-on when you say an undergraduate degree no longer sets you up for a prime job.

    I can’t disagree with any of those points – and thank you for raising them! – but I will say that I still believe there’s much more good than bad occurring at college campuses. So much of the learning isn’t about academic scholarship but about personal growth… still, I can’t deny that the system is broken when so many people can’t afford those years of self-exploration.

    Still… I work on a college campus, and I still see so many students who are eager, well-supported, and brilliant. I talk with faculty everyday, and find the large majority to be highly invested, constantly re-working their classes for better effect, and making themselves unbelievably available. More can always be done, of course, but I suppose my thought is that most of the problems stem from bad administration than the professors or college culture at heart.

    1. Thanks for the thoughtful comment, Jennie. I have no doubt that the campus where you work benefits from your presence. It’s nice to know that you see so many eager, brilliant, and well-supported students there.

  2. Certainly you have to question the value of a university degree in the UK & Ireland when so many bright, eager, intelligent young people struggle to embark on meaningful careers thereafter. Who knows if this will remain the pattern for the future.
    PS – my only knowledge of US college life is via Tom Wolfe’s entertaining ‘I Am Charlotte Simmons.’

    1. Hi Roy! We have a similar situation here where, as Elephrasis wrote in a comment below, “A college education is more or less becoming an (extremely, extremely) expensive certification course for white collar employment.” While I like the idea of an educated citizenry, the educational debt is unbelievable for people who are just going to end up in low-paying jobs.

      As for what college life is like in the US, I thought J. Courtney Sullivan did a good job of depicting campus sexual assault in “The Commencement,” which I reviewed in 2012:

      I haven’t read Tom Wolfe’s “I Am Charlottee Simmons.”

  3. Thanks for addressing this — and for caring. I think most parents aren’t as concerned as they should be about the changes happening in higher education. A college education is more or less becoming an (extremely, extremely) expensive certification course for white collar employment; from a business perspective, which is quickly becoming the only perspective, colleges have no need to provide a good education because their customer base is locked in. Furthermore, because good teaching is hard to recognize from the outside and thus difficult for students to take into account while choosing among schools, colleges instead spend their money on visible markers of prestige: nice dorms, new athletic centers, etc. Parents, as the people who often write the checks, are one of the few groups who have some smidgen of influence on administrators, so it would be great if more of them took an interest.

    RE: tourist trustees, did you hear about the scandal at the University of California a few years ago? Three regents lost a big chunk of the endowment by funneling it into risky investments to which they had significant ties:

    1. I also wish more parents would take notice and apply pressure on school administrators to improve the aspects of higher education that actually focus on educating the next generation. It’s awful that a college education has largely become, as you said, “an extremely, extremely expensive certification course for white collar employment.” I would like the idea of wider enrollment in higher education–even for individuals ending up in lower skilled jobs (because I want an educated citizenry)–if it weren’t for the resulting debt. Did you see the Economic Policy Institute’s report on the education levels and income of low-wage workers ( Sadly, yet unsurprisingly, low-wage workers were more highly educated in 2012 than they were in 1968, but made less money (when minimum wage was adjusted for inflation).

      As for the UC Regents scandal–Wow. I hadn’t heard of it before.

  4. This topic hits close to my heart as a higher education administrator and someone who just got my M.S. in higher education administration. To be honest, the higher education system is America is failing, and failing fast (for a number of reasons). But like all things that are set-up incorrectly to peak upon consumer interests at certain periods of time, the “bubble” has to burst at some point. Just like we saw with so many crashing mortgage companies and corporations a few years ago, the education bubble will pop and need to be redesigned.

    School costs too much nowadays with very little career/monetary payback. Career Services Offices do little to help students find employment, and most colleges are setting people up to be academics, not career-ready. Universities seem to lollygag in almost every decision, especially those that would benefit students. And sadly, I’ve seen all too often the factory mentality of get them in, get them graduated, make them a donor.

    I have a lot of faith that things will turn around, and for the better. Maybe not today or next year, but by the time your girls are ready for college, I hope the system has realigned, invited new leaders, and focused back on the entire purpose of higher education: growing successful students who are diverse learners, thinkers, and people 🙂

    1. Thanks for sharing your perspective on this very sad situation. I wish I had your optimism, but I suppose that isn’t my nature! I hope colleges and universities return to their mission–“growing successful students who are diverse learners, thinkers, and people”–as soon as possible.

  5. The downward spiral of academia in the United States over the past generation is terribly disappointing, and is a serious threat to our nation’s future. While the administrative bureaucrats have been focusing on revenue-raising — typically through unreasonable tuition hikes coupled with the elimination of tenure-track positions — the ossified, entitled tenured faculty has been so concerned with their fragile egos that they haven’t bothered to do much to stop the decline of a field they all claim is vital to democracy.

    I’m no fan of homeschooling – anyone who believes themselves capable of effectively emulating full-time elementary, middle, and high school teachers is fooling themselves – but, quite frankly, if it would work anywhere, it would work in lieu of college. The extraordinary brain drain caused by the dismal working conditions and the absence of tenure has left us in a position where the old insult of “those who can, do; those who can’t, teach” seems to be increasingly accurate. Whereas the new faculty hired for tenure-track positions 20 or 30 years ago represented many of the best and brightest of their generation, the new faculty hired today for non-tenure-track positions usually represents people who are too lazy or incompetent to get a job that pays more than $30,000 a year, is in a location of their choosing, and isn’t dependent upon the whims of the University’s administration, like whether or not the University is going to fire 50 untenured professors to buy gold-plated football helmets.

    Will Hunting’s rant about how a library card was better than a university education seems to be increasingly accurate. Why bother listening to some dimwit dilettante (who would have gotten a better job if they could have) when you can just read the works on your own?

    1. Are you a teacher? You sure sound resentful. As a true-to-life lazy person, I did not become a teacher, I became an author. Being lazy, I figured if I was going to get paid “shit,” I may as well do it for nothing–like writing books. Novels are easy street. Everyone can write a book, just look at Amazon. However, teachers don’t deserve your ignorant slant, unless of course you are speaking from a place of knowing…like a college teacher.

      1. Gherkin, I certainly wish that more tenured faculty would set aside their “fragile egos” and stand up for the adjunct and non-tenured faculty in their departments.

        Jake, I agree that Gherkin sounds resentful, and I certainly wouldn’t say that current hires are “lazy or incompetent,” but I think he/she raises an important point that the current conditions in academia don’t encourage the best in teaching or scholarship. Many qualified and exceptional scholars are leaving academia for steadier and/or higher paying jobs, and many who remain probably find it difficult to do their best teaching or their best research or writing when they forced to manage heavy teaching loads without financial security.

        1. I know quite a few teachers, and they work very hard–harder than I ever want to work for the pittance they receive as payment. Blaming the teachers for the problems in the education system is like blaming a gynecologist for pregnancy. I do agree that the conditions that have been set will not attract a better ‘caste’ of teachers. If I’d misinterpreted the above comment, I deeply apologize for defending those who were not attacked.

  6. Great points! I think it’s also worth nothing that currently over half of college faculty in the U.S. are adjunct (part-time, paid by the credit hour, and don’t receive health and retirement benefits). While there are numerous intangible rewards in teaching, according to a recent article in the Huffington Post (, the average adjunct faculty member earns between $20,000 and $25,000 a year, which actually seems surprisingly high to me based on my own experiences in academia. This makes me wonder where the money generated from over-inflated tuition is actually going.

    1. Thanks for the link! I hope that the increased unionization of adjunct faculty will help. One of the saddest parts of the current situation is how tenured faculty often turn a blind eye to the plight of untenured and adjunct faculty. I’ve seen these types of awful situations in Title VII cases, and I suspect that the worst perpetrators of the harassing and uncivil behavior exposed in the University of Colorado Boulder report (linked in my post) were probably tenured faculty members. I have often wondered where the money my family will be paying to educate our three daughters will go. I feel like our future tuition checks will make us complicit in the exploitation.

  7. Well, that was a frightening read. I’m glad I’m past the age where I have to consider college. It seems like everything we know and accept in this country is on a collision course with disaster. 😦

    1. Yes, it’s very serious, and I wish more families of current and future students would apply pressure on these institutions to change. As for the “tourist,” I can’t imagine why anyone thought it would be a good idea to describe him in such a way. They might as well have called him a “hedonist” or “dilettante.” I also see no legitimate reason why anyone would have put him on a Board of Trustees, but I suppose credentials don’t matter much with political appointees. By the way, yesterday, it was announced that the PA Speaker of the House who appointed him to Temple’s Board is resigning. The resignation is unconnected to the Temple trustee, but it was an interesting coincidence.

      1. I am thinking PA has a bit of corruption going on. I am astounded that they are letting fracking ruin the beauty and health of the state. Up here they are trying to push for more fracking too. It seems a university is a great place for money of any kind. They take it no questions asked.

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