Tom Hayden: We Can't Afford to Be Quiet About the Rising Cost of College
[Tom Hayden is a visiting professor of sociology at Scripps College, in Claremont, Calif. His most recent book is The Long Sixties: From 1960 to Barack Obama (Paradigm, 2009).]
"There are some things we feel, feelings that our prevailing, acquisitive, and competitive corporate life, including tragically the universities, is not the way of life for us. ..."
That heartfelt plea for university reform, issued in 1969, is striking because it was voiced by Hillary Rodham, a student at Wellesley College. Are there any lessons or comparisons to be drawn from those turbulent times for the students and faculty members who are today demonstrating against the rising cost of higher education? As a student at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor in those days and an itinerant sociologist at Scripps College now, I believe we can look to the past as legacy but not as blueprint.
The current generation of young people deserves admiration for the contributions they already have made: creating hip-hop culture, winning sweatshop-free purchasing agreements, leading online advocacy groups like MoveOn.org, and for being the backbone of Barack Obama's unprecedented volunteer campaign. They will be the cradle of social activism for the next 20 years. But the challenges they face on their campuses are far different from those of my generation, and perhaps more profound. Tuition at Michigan in 1960 cost less than $150 per semester. So I could obtain my degree, edit the student newspaper, go south to work in the civil-rights movement for two years, return and enter graduate school, and never feel that I was falling behind in the competitive economic rat race that young Hillary spoke out against.
Students today, however—even those who hold two part-time jobs—fall tens of thousands of dollars into debt, a burden that limits their career choices. Dropping out for social activism brings competitive disadvantage. The speedup of academic pressures dries up discretionary time that used to go to dreaming and exploring. Campuses are crowded with scrambling multitaskers for the most part too busy to protest the pace. Meanwhile, increases in the cost of college exceed inflation every year, intensifying the squeeze....
The value of the past lies in remembering how recently higher education was affordable, even cheap. It's not inevitable that a college education today costs so much. Undergraduate education is virtually free at the Sorbonne or the National Autonomous University of Mexico, and a year at Oxford costs no more than community colleges charge here. The choices we have made as a country—to relentlessly privatize our public institutions; to eventually spend three trillion dollars, by some estimates, on the war in Iraq instead of on our public universities; to bail out billionaires on Wall Street while hitting students and their families with repeated tuition increases—are choices with consequences that we have to rethink or accept....
The recent discontent on campuses is a healthy challenge to America's priorities. I hope that Hillary Clinton hears an echo of herself before she and her colleagues become the politicians she warned us against.
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