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After the Ivory Tower Falls

After the Ivory Tower Falls

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Author and journalist Will Bunch’s introduction in After the Ivory Tower Falls provides an overview of his book in three sentences:

  • “More than a half century after the baby booms and economic booms and the atomic booms of the 1950’s and ‘60s, we are still clinging to the fast-melting permafrost of a now no-longer-new idea that college is the American Dream.”
  • “So much so that we are refusing to admit that somewhere in the middle of a long and stormy postindustrial night, the dream has morphed into a nightmare.”
  • “All those modern ailments-the unfathomable tuition bills, the massive student debt that collectively has risen to $1.7 trillion, the elite schools with the single-digit admission rates that today resemble luxury spa hotels more than academies of learning, the growing number of middle-middle-class kids forced to eat from food pantries or even experience homelessness in a desperate paper chase for college credentials – have had profound consequences extending far off campus.”

Mr. Bunch begins his story about American higher education and its influence on American society with a trip to Knox County, Ohio, to the small town of Gambier. Gambier, population 2,391) is a blue (Democrat) town in the middle of a red (Republican) county. The reason for Gambier’s political differences from the surrounding community is the fact that it is the home of Kenyon College. Kenyon, an elite small college with an enrollment of 1,875 students, all undergraduates, charges students (and their parents) approximately $80,000 per year for the education and experiences. Families in the middle-class income bracket of $48,001 to $75,000 paid an average of $14,182 to send their son or daughter to Kenyon for a year.

Weaving his story through interviews with students, faculty, townspeople, large scale employers, and entrepreneurs, Mr. Bunch introduces his concept of four quadrants that most Americans can be grouped into. These are:

  • Left Broke – young people and their families for whom the enlightenment of college education was weighed down by worries around money and an unequal society.
  • Left Out – young people coming out of high school and using drugs or video games to cope with the tedium of fast-food McJobs or warehouse work.
  • Left Behind – parents of the Left Out youth whose middle-class culture crumbled before their eyes.
  • Left Perplexed – people who went to college when tuition was low and American optimism was high who struggled to understand the reasons for the rapid changes in American politics.

To provide background to support his premise that higher education has been responsible for creating our current political divide, Mr. Bunch writes about the history of federal funding of higher education beginning with the passage of the GI Bill in 1944. Prior to WWII, just five percent of Americans attended college. Thanks to the GI Bill’s generous terms, college enrollment doubled by late 1946 with nearly half of the students enrolled under the GI Bill. Two years after the GI Bill’s passage, President Truman announced his Commission on Higher Education. A year later, the Commission issued its report stressing the value of higher education to enhance and support democracy particularly by emphasizing “general education.” Even though the Commission supported making education through the “fourteenth grade” available in the same way a high school education was available, Bunch writes that they missed their chance at formally making higher education a public good through legislation and funding.

College and university student enrollments tripled from 1956-1970 and spending increased six-fold. State governments increased their support funding public universities and the newer community colleges. Beginning in the early 1960’s, college students were becoming more active in protesting the Vietnam War and supporting Black civil rights. Around the same time that Congress passed the Higher Education Act of 1965, an expansion of federal programs to bring college to more low-income families, the wave of college student protests was accelerating.

Violent protests on college campuses combined with violent civil rights protests spawned a new generation of conservative politicians. According to Mr. Bunch, the consensus that had generated taxpayer support for higher education and a liberal curriculum would start to collapse with the election of conservative politicians like Ronald Reagan in California and Richard Nixon as president. In 1978, Congress passed the Middle Income Assistance Act which removed limits on the amount of federal guaranteed student loans they could take out. That same year, California voters approved Proposition 13, a cap on property taxes that impacted how much money was available for services and programs like higher education.

In 1978, Harvard University raised its tuition by 18 percent. When applications didn’t decline the following year, Harvard continued to raise its tuition year after year at rates higher than inflation since parents of its wealthy students were willing to pay it. This was the beginning of an upward spiral of tuition and an arms race for prestige that would prove devastating for students who needed a college credential. To compete at the prestige level, many of the public flagships shifted their percentages of out-of-state and foreign students who paid higher tuition than in-state students. Students who couldn’t afford to pay these higher tuitions were able to borrow thanks to increased debt limits with no realistic assessment of graduates’ abilities to repay. College student debt continued to rise and rise until reaching its most recent level of $1.7 trillion.

Throughout the book, Mr. Bunch continues to interview and profile people, college students and others, who fit into one of his quad groups. His explanations for the election of Donald Trump in 2016 and Joe Biden in 2020 are excellent and logical (except to deniers of both political extremes). He concludes his book with a recommendation that we renew our national commitment to universal schooling or training benefits for all young adults, funded as a public good. He acknowledges that we won’t get there without a shared sense of national purpose that breaks down the barriers between Democrats and Republicans.

I enjoy recommending books about higher education to my friends who have never worked in higher education. After the Ivory Tower Falls is one of those books that meets the test of being well-researched and well-written. I hope that many who read this book recommend it to their friends as well. We need something that can kick start a new line of thinking and this could be it.

 

 

Wally Boston Dr. Wallace E. Boston was appointed President and Chief Executive Officer of American Public University System (APUS) and its parent company, American Public Education, Inc. (APEI) in July 2004. He joined APUS as its Executive Vice President in 2002. In September 2019, Dr. Boston retired as CEO of APEI and retired as APUS President in August 2020. Dr. Boston guided APUS through its successful initial accreditation with the Higher Learning Commission of the North Central Association in 2006 and ten-year reaccreditation in 2011. In November 2007, he led APEI to an initial public offering on the NASDAQ Exchange. For four years from 2009 through 2012, APEI was ranked in Forbes' Top 10 list of America's Best Small Public Companies. During his tenure as president, APUS grew to over 85,000 students, 200 degree and certificate programs, and approximately 100,000 alumni. While serving as APEI CEO and APUS President, Dr. Boston was a board member of APEI, APUS, Hondros College of Nursing, and Fidelis, Inc. Dr. Boston was appointed to the National Advisory Committee on Institutional Quality and Integrity by the U.S. Secretary of Education in 2019. He also serves as a member of the Board of Advisors of the National Institute for Learning Outcomes Assessment (NILOA), as a Trustee of The American College of Financial Services, as a member of the board of Our Community Salutes - USA, and as a member and chair of the board of New Horizons Worldwide. He has authored and co-authored papers on the topic of online post-secondary student retention, and is a frequent speaker on the impact of technology on higher education. Dr. Boston is a past Treasurer of the Board of Trustees of the McDonogh School, a private K-12 school in Baltimore. In his career prior to APEI and APUS, Dr. Boston served as either CFO, COO, or CEO of Meridian Healthcare, Manor Healthcare, Neighborcare Pharmacies, and Sun Healthcare Group. Dr. Boston is a Certified Public Accountant, Certified Management Accountant, and Chartered Global Management Accountant. He earned an A.B. degree in History from Duke University, an MBA in Marketing and Accounting from Tulane University’s Freeman School of Business Administration, and a Doctorate in Higher Education Management from the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education. In 2008, the Board of Trustees of APUS awarded him a Doctorate in Business Administration, honoris causa, and, in April 2017, also bestowed him with the title President Emeritus. In August 2020, the Board of Trustees of APUS appointed him Trustee Emeritus. In November 2020, the Board of Trustees announced that the APUS School of Business would be renamed the Dr. Wallace E Boston School of Business in recognition of Dr. Boston's service to the university. Dr. Boston lives with his family in Austin, Texas.

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