Counter Narrative

2013: The Year America Went Back to College

Why was the media so obsessed with higher ed this year?

Udacity co-founder Sebastian Thrun, above in Washington in November 2012, recently conceded that MOOCs might not be a good fit for diverse—i.e., not wealthy, well-prepared—students.

Photo by Brendan Hoffman/Getty Images for Smithsonian magazine

It is the time of year when writers either resist or wallow in the social convention known as the year-in-review retrospective. Rather than be a hero, I have decided to cave gracefully. Looking over the year that was, the increased coverage of higher education is rather amazing. Major news outlets like the New York Times have always covered the goings on at Ivy League quads, but this year the mainstream media seriously interrogated higher education as a complex ecosystem. This year America went to college because America is really nervous about everything College-with-a-capital-C is supposed to mean: mobility, meritocracy, and the American dream.

Speaking of the Times, they devoted a lot of resources to long-form reporting on higher ed this year. Their coverage of what researchers call tuition discounting at expensive universities is an example of how the higher-ed inside game jumped into popular awareness in 2013. The Atlantic, Politico, and yours truly here at Slate started delving into the complexity of higher ed memes in ways that had once been primarily the domain of niche publications like Inside Higher Ed. Nonprofit initiatives such as the New America Foundation’s Higher Ed Watch leveraged a steady stream of empirical research on higher-ed trends from the likes of PolicyMic and the Brookings Institution. Demos best exemplified how this convergence of in-depth analysis and resources from intersecting organizations made for better analysis. Demos didn’t just pick up on a Century Foundation report on declining public investment in community colleges. It put those findings in the context of trends in for-profit higher education and skyrocketing student loan debt. Demos also produced what was, pound-for-pound, my favorite white paper of the year: Its empirically grounded analysis of the long-term effects of student loan debt applies rigorous social science methods to a question that matters to millions of Americans. Even better, the report is well-written, approachable, and readily available. That is research and analysis that matters.

Our obsession with higher education often came out in stories that were ostensibly about completely separate issues. Coverage of the federal government shutdown in October featured a lot of student voices, but little of it focused on working-class and poor students, whose food and child care subsidies were hit hard because wealthy pols in Washington couldn’t play nicely in their publicly subsidized sandbox. And while you might be hard-pressed to think of a fodder less suited for a higher-ed think piece than the morass that is the U.S. tax code, Elizabeth Stoker and Matthew Bruenig pulled off a wicked smart analysis in Salon of how inequalities manifest through tax policies, are rewarded by legacy admissions at prestigious universities, and altogether make a mockery of American meritocracy.

The Times declared 2012 “the year of the MOOC,” but there was considerable time-lag. A database search of U.S. newspapers shows 286 references to massive open online courses in 2012; that’s a sizable increase over 2011’s grand total of three MOOC references, but it’s dwarfed by 2013’s 1,351 references. (And that’s with a week left in the year. If Coursera’s Andrew Ng catches a cold on New Year’s and makes a MOOC about it, there could be a spike.)

Though 2012 may have been christened the year of the MOOC, experts such as Audrey Watters had predicted that 2013 would be the year the MOOC met reality. She may be right. True believers once promised that MOOCs would do everything from democratize learning, ameliorate racism and sexism and classism in college access, and lower the cost of tuition. But by the end of this year, MOOCs had been handed a very public flogging by public San Jose State University when faculty and students pushed back against MOOCs replacing core undergraduate classes. MOOCs’ high attrition and low completion rates made assigning course credit—the ultimate measure of successful higher ed—more difficult than investors had expected. When a bill came up in California to mandate that public universities accept all transfer credits from not-for-profit and for-profit online college providers, faculty organized and revolted. (The bill is, for the time being, dead on arrival.) In a brilliant piece at the New Inquiry, Aaron Bady posited that we may be witnessing the beginning of the end of education reform even if we are not sure what the end will look like. The MOOC hype seems to be pivoting, if not retreating; Udacity co-founder Sebastian Thrun recently conceded that MOOCs might not be a good fit for diverse—i.e., not wealthy, well-prepared—students.

But all of the above is the what of 2013, but not the why. Why do we all care so much? (With 33 percent of Americans possessing a college degree, higher ed is still a relatively narrow world.)There is the practical debate about the cost, risk, and rewards of colleges and universities. But there is also the higher-ed debate as a symbolic conversation. The symbolic conversation is about what we believe College-with-a-capital-C represents. It has represented economic and social mobility, two things that we increasingly feel are slipping away. We can feel the persistent, growing income inequality in our daily lives. Workers lucky enough to be employed are working longer hours and earning fewer real dollars, adjusted for inflation. Education is supposed to fix that kind of inequality.

Eduardo Porter at the Times echoes a common response to this kind of stagnation: Americans need more education. Porter rightly points out that college graduates earn more than nongrads. But analysts at the Economic Policy Institute detail a decade of stagnate worker wages in the U.S. between 2000 and 2013, even among those with college degrees. Education cannot fix a limping economy or produce jobs out of thin air. The Brookings Institution, like others, continues to assert that we have a skills gap in this country and only more education can prepare workers for the fastest growing jobs and industries. But there’s a lot that education cannot fix. It cannot change the fact that fast-growing industries don’t necessarily produce enough well-paying jobs for everyone who needs one—and that’s before we start worrying about the robots that are coming for our jobs. We can sense that more college cannot fix the skills gap, which is really a gap between what employers are willing to pay for skills and the amount of student loan debt we take on to acquire those skills. Sure, we could all go to college, or as Matt Yglesias points out, capitalists could also just hire a less-skilled worker and “teach him how to do the damn job.” With little evidence that our great capitalists overlords are willing to do this anytime soon, we all get kvetchy about college.

If we’re hyperanxious about college access, costs, and returns, it is because we’re hyperanxious about the fissures in our social contract that college is supposed to patch up. There is a lot that higher education can do and a lot we should expect it to do. Higher education should absolutely incubate an educated, empathetic citizenry with critical-thinking skills. It should produce research that matters for the least well-off of us as well at it does the most well-off. It should make workers, but it should also make us more than mere workers.

In 2013, America went to college through the popular media imagination because we’re still hopeful that the promise of higher education is alive, for with it goes the promise of American mobility, opportunity, and identity. But there is not much on the horizon that promises to redress the insecurity that has sharpened our focus on the value of higher education.