I spend a lot of time trying to wrap my head around various aspects of the university system in America. I wonder why it’s so expensive compared to universities in other parts of the world, and why amassing huge debt to go to college has become mainstream. I wonder what it is that makes a college education so crucial for success in our society, and whether the one-size-fits-all mentality is misguided. I also wonder what it is about academia that motivates many more people to aspire to a coveted academic position, despite intense competition and dismal forecasts for the future.
There are a number of reasons that the current higher education system in America could use some revamping. One problem that Caitlin Flanagan points out the Atlantic (The Dark Power of Fraternities) is that people expect college to be fun, perhaps the greatest 4 years of their lives. Universities cater to students’ (and parents’) demands for fancy dining and athletic facilities, superb landscaping, and cushy dorms in order to attract more students. In turn, they use those students’ tuitions to enhance their colleges even more, which feeds into a vicious cycle. Although American universities began as places for people devoted to learning, they’re increasingly becoming places for those devoted to partying.
Many college-goers aren’t only serious about partying, though. I suspect that most people who go to a traditional college would say that they’re there so they can get a good-paying job after. Isn’t it ironic, then, that those who are most committed to academia and pursue their field most intensely are increasingly finding themselves under- and unemployed? It’s not news to me that landing a tenured faculty position is a feat. However, I recently read an article from Inside Higher Ed by Patrick Iber, (Probably) Refusing to Quit, that really struck me. Iber had a PhD and plenty of accolades in his field, but his academic job-hunting saga suggests that luck and timing might be as important as merit in attaining a faculty position. It’s a bummer that colleges can continue to revamp athletic fields that are fine and build luxury dorms to house more and more students (after all, these are the amenities that convince students to attend), but they don’t seem to be able to spend enough of their budget on hiring people who will contribute expertise and passion to the intellectual environment. These people, it seems, should be the core of the university. Have we lost sight of the purpose of college?