The University and the Company Man

Source: Tressie McMillan Cottom, Dissent, Vol. 61 no. 2, Spring 2014
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The U.S. higher education crisis has been well documented. College is overpriced, over-valued, and ripe for disruption (preferably, for some critics, by the outcome-driven private sector). At the same time, many Americans are flailing in the post-recession economy. With rising income inequality, persistent long-term unemployment, and declining real wages, Americans are searching for purchase on shifting ground. Not so long ago, the social contract between workers, government, and employers made college a calculable bet. But when the social contract was broken and policymakers didn’t step in, the only prescription for insecurity was the product that had been built on the assumption of security. We built a university system for the way we worked. What happens to college when we work not just differently but for less? And what if the crisis in higher education is related to the broader failures that have left so many workers struggling?…. The “opportunity costs” of spending four to six years not being employed while you earn a degree were once measured against the security promised by the corporate social contract. Now, workers must not only absorb the costs of retirement planning, health care, and child care but also educate themselves to satisfy a moving target. There is plenty to be said about expensive climbing walls at pricey colleges and the often inadequate choices that the poor have, but there is no reason colleges cannot prepare workers for how we work today. Between 1945 and 1965 the entire system of higher education reinvented itself, in large part to give corporations the company men they needed. Higher education surely knows how to change—when it knows what it is changing to…..