"From civilized air travel to the nuclear family, the Baby Boom generation has laid waste to a lot of things that used to make this country great. I’m a member of that generation, so I should know.
Even I, however, am astounded by the mess we Boomers have made of the one thing that set us apart from previous generations, giving us advantages they could only dream about: the college education.
Before the Baby Boom, it was considered a rare privilege to have a college degree. I remember my sixth grade teacher, Mrs. Ryder, asking us to raise our hands if we expected to go to college. When almost everyone in class obliged, Mrs. Ryder told us this meant that many of us would be the first ones in our families to cross this threshold. This, she said, was part of the American story in which each generation paved the way to make life better for the generation that came after.
In the 1960s, higher education was one of America’s biggest growth industries. Since there were more kids than ever before, this meant more teenagers enrolled in colleges and universities. There were actually television commercials aimed at encouraging people to go to college. One showed a guy jumping into a swimming pool with a pair of lead boots on his feet. The not-so-subtle message was that, without a college degree, he was never going to get a good job.
So off to college we Boomers went. And guess what? We liked it there. In fact, we liked it so much, many of us stayed — first to pile on a graduate degree or two, and then to stake a claim as teachers and administrators. Campus life, it turned out, offered charms not easily come by in what we called “the Real World.”
Being Baby Boomers and priding ourselves on our advanced social consciousness and talent for innovation, we proclaimed that our love for things academic was a good thing — for the colleges and universities, of course. We would reinvent, update and expand these crabby old institutions. And, in so doing, we would do away with that old bugbear about those who can doing and those who can’t teaching. Indeed, we set things up so that many so-called professors never even had to enter a classroom! There were graduate students for that.
Yes, we took that growth industry and corporatized it.
It comes as no surprise, then, to wake up to recent headlines about the billion dollar endowments our colleges and universities are amassing while, at the same time, they charge more than ever for tuition. According to the College Board, college prices have risen 35 percent in just the past five years. Since 1992, increasing college costs have outgrown family incomes for all but the 20 percent of American families with the highest incomes. Although student financial assistance from all sources has increased by 140 percent since 1991, it hasn’t come close to keeping up.
A 2006 report called “Mortgaging Our Future” by the Advisory Committee on Student Financial Assistance found that, in the 1990s, up to 1.5 million academically qualified low- and moderate-income students with college aspirations did not earn bachelor’s degrees within eight years of high school graduation because of financial barriers. As many as 2.5 million students are expected to be in the same boat during this decade.
But that’s not all. Among those students who are able to attend college, only about two-thirds complete a bachelor’s degree in six years. According to “Measuring Up,” a 2006 study by the National Center For Public Policy and Higher Education, the United States ranks 16th in completion rates among 26 nations internationally. The “Measuring Up” study finds that American higher education is underperforming in preparing the next generations to replace retiring Boomers; in creating an internationally competitive workforce; and in maintaining and enhancing opportunity and upward mobility for young Americans.
What’s especially galling about this is that in all the talk about the high cost and under-performance of American higher education there is little or no discussion about how our colleges and universities are actually run. The hierarchies, privileges and fiefdoms that define our academic institutions are well known to anyone that’s ever spent time around a campus. These cultural peccadilloes, along with the conventional wisdom that schools must model themselves along the lines of resort spas in order to compete for students, are treated like forces of nature rather than the self-congratulatory indulgences they really are.
Baby Boomers came of age on campuses — then we took over. It’s been a nice ride for some — nothing less than the chance to live in an alternative universe. But if Mrs. Ryder were alive today, I doubt she’d say we’d made life better for anyone but ourselves.