Thirty years ago, we all understood what the term “culture wars” meant. It was about Mapplethorpe vs. Helms and teaching old, dead, white men vs. revisionist and black history. There were lines. Whichever side you were on, you knew where you stood.
The battle lines changed and have morphed into something quite different today. As the first efforts by the Trump Administration to enact an immigration ban sputtered in chaos, confusion and a “must see TV” legal battle, the implications of the fight over how to provide national security have become clear. So, too, did the historical precedents that informed this newest battle.
It turns out that the new culture wars are also social, economic, and political in nature.
The new battle lines are between visions of American society that are industrial vs. post-industrial in outlook, design, and practice.
Historical Perspectives on Economic Battle Lines
What’s most interesting is that these new lines mirror the pitched battles over industrialization in the early 19th century, especially in England, as machinery replaced manpower in textile production, especially weaving. The warriors then were craftsmen, rooted in an agricultural society, who saw their traditions and way of life threatened by the mechanization of their livelihoods.
The protesters – the Luddites – were English textile workers and independent craftsmen who destroyed weaving machinery to protest the mechanization of textile production. They were fearful that years spent learning their craft were wasted and that unskilled workers would take their place. Eventually, the military suppressed the Luddite movement. England became the world’s leading industrial power throughout much of the 19th century.
Two hundred years later, the parallels persist as America moved from an industrial to a post-industrial economy. Workers in the manufacturing sector have seen their jobs disappear and wages stagnate as income inequality has continued to rise for over twenty years, despite some recent upticks. The presumed culprit is cheaper overseas labor, principally identified as Mexican and Chinese. The Luddites of 19th century industrial England have become the “America first” nationalists of 21st century America.
Globalization and National Security Concerns Interwoven
Symbolized by the debate over renegotiating NAFTA and abandoning the Trans Pacific Partnership, it has become a battle to stem the tide over “free trade” globalization cloaked in concerns about national security. Internally, the battle lines are also cultural, on issues like Planned Parenthood, immigration and refugees, and Supreme Court picks. The philosophies behind these competing claims are decoded into a broader national debate about “American values.”
For the moment, the effect is to split the country almost uniformly, depending upon the crisis de jour. Practically, there is a political dimension with the red and blue states recast, within limits, as “nationalists” and “globalists,” respectively. The problem with the rhetoric today is that people will get hurt. It’s probably where the large crowds protesting immigration policies can do the most good, however, especially if they can humanize the negative impact of “America first” policies.
“Eds and Meds” are Economic Engines
There is another danger, already recognized in cities like Boston, New York, Seattle, Washington, and San Francisco. These are the “eds and meds” capitals of the country whose economies are in each case bigger than those of most countries with which America competes. They are the booming economic engines of the US economy. It’s why the Silicon Valley’s biggest technology players have joined together to speak against the immigration ban.
The stakes are high. How American higher education plays its hand could set the United States on a path that will shape its ability to compete.
To this end, it’s important to have clear strategic goals in mind. Here are some first thoughts:
Higher Education Must Choose Battles Wisely
Build a strategy out of the initial tactical responses that have occurred in response to the early policy initiatives of the Trump administration. Protests are fine – critical, in fact – but choose the battles wisely. America’s leading educators should speak out on policies that affect higher education, linking what they say to social, cultural, and political concerns about American values. Their campuses must be prepared to support them, particularly if they focus on the issues and stay out of the politics.
Higher Ed Must Be Broadly Inclusive
America’s colleges and universities must remove what can sometimes be seen as legitimate criticism and become more tolerant of ideas, including those with which they and their college communities disagree. They must practice what they preach on how best to be broadly inclusive.
Higher Ed Must be Leader in Post-Industrial Economy
“It’s the economy stupid.” American workers list job security as their principal worry. In a world in which “do no damage” should be a primary operating principle, it is dangerous for the American economy to power down, for example, because of knee-jerk immigration policies. We need the best and the brightest with us. But we also need a Manhattan Project version of a Tennessee Valley Authority initiative to move the Rust Belt mindset forward.
The goal is a growing economy to build a robust middle class across the country. America signaled that globalization would undergird the world economy when Bill Clinton signed on to NAFTA.
The trick now will be for leaders – including those who run American colleges and universities – to help America prepare to lead a post-industrial economy.
It will require sane, reasoned debate. Let us begin.
There is plenty of data suggesting that education, particularly a college or university degree, leads to higher incomes. Less is known about the impact of higher education — and specific schools — on socioeconomic mobility, that is, moving from one “rung” of the income ladder to another.
A new study by The Equality of Opportunity Project sheds valuable light on this question: Which colleges in America contribute the most to helping students climb the income ladder?
Many Elite Colleges Have Chosen Affordability Over Access
Researchers found that poor students who attend top (i.e. selective or elite) colleges do about as well in terms of income as their rich classmates, but many fewer lower income students attend these institutions. According to a New York Times article on the study, “at 38 colleges in America, including five in the Ivy League – Dartmouth, Princeton, Yale, Penn and Brown – more students come from the top 1 percent of the income scale than from the entire bottom 60 percent.”
Further, less than one-half of 1 percent of children from the bottom fifth of American families attend an elite college; less than half attend any college at all.”
As Danny Yagan, one of the study authors, noted, “Free tuition only helps if you can get in.”
The authors of “Mobility Report Cards: The Role of Colleges in Intergenerational Mobility” tracked more than 30 million students born between 1980 and 1991, linking anonymized tax returns to attendance records for almost every college in America.
There are a number of interesting reflections on higher education policy that emerge from the interpretation of this data. The New York Times reports, “These patterns are important because previous research has found that there are many highly qualified lower-income students who did not attend selective colleges—and because the low- and middle-income students who do attend top colleges fare almost as well as rich students.”
Put a different way, “lower-income students end up earning almost as much on average as affluent students who attend the same college.”
The New York Times also concluded, “most Americans remain on a similar place on the income distribution graph from their late 30s through the end of their careers.”
College Mobility Rate Measures Graduates Movement Up Income Ladder
The researchers in the new study also developed a new data point — a college’s mobility rate – which combines a college’s share of students from lower-income families with its success in moving them into a higher permanent level on an income earning’s chart. A disparate collection of mainly mid-tier public colleges, including California State University – Los Angeles and the City University of New York System — and not the Ivies — have the best college mobility rates.
Of course, any number of factors can come into play to affect these conclusions. Most Ivies are mid-sized institutions, for example, so the impact that they have on national rates reflects the aggregate number of students that they contribute to the national findings.
Still, the findings raise important policy questions as American higher education continues to evolve and re-invent itself. For example:
- Do elite colleges have a special mission to educate broadly across all income levels as the justification for their continuing status as non-profits?
- If so, should they be held any more or less accountable for their ability to do so given their sticker prices, the size of their endowments, and their published statements on institutional mission?
- What is more important: affordability or access?
- It is widely accepted that public colleges typically educate the most first-generation students and those from the lowest socioeconomic class. In the race for students, do public and private colleges and universities really educate different students by income level or is the pool of applicants from which they select similar in 2017?
- Is there differentiation by income between public and private “flagship” research universities or between the research universities and four-year predominantly undergraduate institutions?
- Do non-elite institutions serve students from lower socioeconomic classes successfully?
- If so, given the level of preparedness affecting the social, familial, cultural, psychological, and financial challenges that these students face, should different standards apply to admission, retention, and graduation rates across colleges and universities?
- In fact, should a college’s accountability be measured more fairly against the challenges that the college faces when working with students who require more attention than similar students at highly selective colleges?
- Is it the money that matters most in the “free” college tuition plans now being proposed, when retention and graduation rates do not support greater student success if only the financial barriers are lessened?
- Is a partial solution to design policies that better reflect institutional missions, intentions, and projected outcomes?
- Should state and federal governments set education, including higher education, as a much higher priority in planning and funding cycles given rising income inequality in America?
For the past several years, consumer and political polling have relied on high tuition sticker prices, rising debt, and anecdotal personal stories to shift the blame of higher education’s failures on to America’s colleges and universities.
There is plenty of blame to go around with a good share of it borne by higher education. But politicians and their policy planners must also accept their own failures to read the research, understand and anticipate the demographic shifts, and assess the impact of technology on American society.
There is a persistent and growing problem with income inequality in the United States.
Rather than police American higher education, perhaps our political, social and economic leadership should find a way to partner with colleges and universities on developing solutions. It begins by doing the homework necessary to ask the right questions.