Thursday, July 25, 2013


Perspectives are manifold on what should be done to reform and improve higher education in the United States.  And those attitudes depend on one's view of this important component of America’s education system.  Some argue that American higher education is fundamentally sound and others that it is unsustainable because of increasing costs. Viewpoints are so varied that it seems that individuals are talking about different subjects, much like the story of the blind men who touch the elephant immortalized in John Godfrey Saxe's (1816-1887) version of the famous Indian legend:

It was six men of Indostan
To learning much inclined,
Who went to see the Elephant
(Though all of them were blind),
That each by observation
Might satisfy his mind.

The story is based on old legends from the Indian subcontinent that demonstrate that each person brings his/her own prejudices and perspectives (blind spots) in examining an issue, as the blind men do, with vastly different conclusions.  One blind man, examining the ears, thinks the elephant is a fan, the blind man touching the leg thinks he has found a tree trunk and so on.   

Six blind men examine an elephant.  Source: Wikipedia

According to a numerous polls, the US public thinks that obtaining a post-secondary degree is essential to one’s future.  For example the 2013 report by Sallie Mae, How America Pays for College, cites “Unwavering belief in the value of college” with “85% of parents strongly agreed that college was an investment in their child’s future, the highest in the last five years.”

However, the cost of college is a concern for many.  The 2012 report of the Pew Charitable Trust says, “75% of public says college too expensive for most Americans to afford.”  
And even more troubling according to Pew, “57% of Americans say colleges fail to provide students with good value for money spent.”

A college degree that has proven to be, for most, the key to economic security, is becoming a birth right for the rich but out of reach for many in the middle and poorer classes. This fact has been documented by the HamiltonProject that reports, “College graduation rates have increased sharply for wealthy students but stagnated for low-income students.”  Moreover, the Hamilton Project also informs us that, not surprisingly, “the most-competitive colleges are attended almost entirely by students from higher-socioeconomic status households.”

So how is the elephant doing?  Clearly, US higher education with its world-class institutions is serving the wealthy very well but not the rest of America who sees higher education degree as essential, expensive and difficult to attain.