Curbing access to higher education may be as, if not more significant, than voter disenfranchisement. Mitt Romney’s stump comment that students should “get as much education as they can afford,” soaring college tuition prices, and the takeover of colleges and universities by business and law faculty are creating a new glass ceiling in academia for the middle class and working poor. Speaking on the stump last Wednesday night, Mitt Romney’s ”opportunity” speech had a Freudian slip:
His quote is full of reality land-mines:
“They get as much education as they can afford and with their time they’re able to get and if they have a willingness to work hard and the right values, they ought to be able to provide for their family and have a shot of realizing their dreams.”
If banks take back student loans and raise rates up to commercial levels, the cost of education, already new glass ceiling for minorities and many middle and upper-middle class families with more than one child, may turn to impenetrable stone, and keep many from even trying to obtain a bachelors or masters degree. Student loan debt is over $1T, and debt in the six figure range is not uncommon for many grad students, lawyers, doctors, and dentists. 
Tuition at private colleges and universities has gone up 135% since the 1980-81 in constant dollars, a figure that removes dollar inflation by pegging school costs to the Consumer Price Index, which adjusts for it. It’s up from an average of $5,594 per year in 1980-81 to an average of $32,790 in 2009-2010.
What about public education? It is not far behind, up 115% in constant dollars from $5,881 in 1980-81 to $12,6681 in 2010.
In current dollars, not inflation adjusted, private colleges are up 486% since the 1980s, and public higher education costs are up 439%.
What is to blame for this?
The commercialization of colleges, the hit that institutional endowments took in the Great Recession, appeasing grade greedy parents and students, more competitive salaries and the scramble by educational institutions chasing the big herd of the current post-Baby Boom wave of students to improve their “packaging” are all components.
There is one more: Colleges, from the oldest of the old line to the community college, are being run by not by traditional academia, but by the more conservative business and law faculties. The AP, via the Kansas City Star, reports:
“The governing boards of colleges and universities are increasingly demanding that their presidents perform more like corporate chief executives, much to the chagrin of academics who say treating colleges as businesses doesn’t fit the mission of higher education. Experts say the recent moves largely have been spurred by federal and state funding cuts.”
University of Virginia president Theresa Sullivan was ousted by their Board of Visitors, their supervisory board, last month because they thought that she was moving too slowly to develop profitable online classes and get more dollar value out of the school’s teaching hospital. Sullivan was reinstated weeks later after a large public outcry by the faculty and students that made national news.
“Corporate-style, top-down leadership does not work in a great university,” Sullivan told the Board in remarks after her reinstatement. 
Academia, the designed end-goal of most university education, has always wrestled with the debate between developing great minds that can later enter different practical avenues of life and the polytechnic style of education, teaching a practice, skill or trade from which one can make money at the university level that limits exposure to a broader knowledge base.
Some students have always bristled about having to take a broader range of classes over the generations. The difference today seems that they are being catered to by a more conservative mindset that is quite happy keeping the next wave of American citizens and voters a bit more ignorant of that broader spectrum of knowledge about the world around them.
Salaries are up to the six figures. The median salary for a full professor is $141,800, in the 91st percentile of people holding doctorate degrees. Associate professors median is $103,699. Assistant Professors median? $101,749. Instructors median is approximately $59,600. Adjusted for inflation, it is an increase from the 1980s, but has remained relatively flat over the last decade, remaining a significant cost, but not the driver of increases. 
Schools of higher learning big expenses of late have been via their edifice complexes. They push construction of new dormitories, plush dining halls, more chain style fast-foods and better grounds to attract prospective students and their parents shelling out increasingly monumental tuitions to pay for it all.
Colleges and Universities are putting development on the backs of today’s teens for those coming in the next decade. According to a new report from the U.S. Department of Education, undergraduate enrollment is expected to increase from 18.1 million students in 2010 to 20.6 million in 2021.
These students, dubbed “millenials” by some in academia, are the large wave of second-generation college educated mixed with a rising tide of first generation college students.  College costs  that, with books, room and board, can top $52,000 a year. Add another $20,000-$55,000 tuition-only a year for graduate school, medical school, or law school.
Without assistance, the “nuclear” family with two children can be paying out $416,000 for a pair of four year undergraduate educations. Raise a doctor, MD or Ph.D, and you can be looking at $846,000 worth of higher education or more for your pair.
Which is why the number of students on assistance of some form or another rose from 75% to 85% of students in four year colleges this year. 
Even parents making combined incomes of $100,000 or more received $6,200 worth of subsidies because a the cost of a college education is even outpacing upper-middle class professionals.
A lot of the pressure on colleges to produce students with more tangible skills than “higher thought” is driven by Generation X parents anxious for their emerging offspring to have immediate employment opportunities upon departure from an undergraduate education.
“As for the next generation of college parents—the Generation X’ers—they may pose an even greater challenge for administrators and professors than the students. If demographic trends hold, the Gen-X parents will be even more involved, but less patient and reasonable, than their baby-boomer predecessors. Gen-X parents are likely to be less financially secure than the boomers were, so the cost of college education will be an increasingly major factor. They are frequently more action-oriented, self-reliant, and cynical than boomers, with less respect for individuals in authority. They will, therefore, likely expect colleges to help resolve their offspring’s difficulties as quickly as possible. They will also be less patient with the fact that the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act prevents them from access to their children’s educational records.”
Many colleges have established offices of “Parent Relations,” to deal with those pressures. Instead of diffusing them, however, some of these ombudsmen for the university become part of the problem.
With the Far Right, via the federal Ryan Plan and similar measures in state houses nationwide, looking to preserve tax breaks for the wealthy by lopping back social services and education funding, tuition and additional parent giving have taken on even more importance.
Gen X parents leverage their liaisons to heal grades in “non-essential”, to their viewpoint, required courses like philosophy, art history or history.
Funding for higher education increasingly comes from grants from Far Right givers like the DeVos (Amway) family with strings: Their own agenda for the restructuring of higher education to more religiously limited and less socially aware agendas. The Republican war on education at all levels, as evidenced best in Texas, where the feeding secondary schools have been slashed to bits, with libraries, art and music programs being cut or closed to pay the bills.
They’re looking to instill the “Right” values, as Romney noted.
Thirty-five years ago representatives of the John Bircher Libertarian right, Grover Norquist and Jack Abramoff, worked college campuses to recruit the next generation of politicians that we see today. Not smart people. Ambitious, dogmatic, willfully ignorant people. The singularly focused, reality-challenged student like a Rick Santorum, Sarah Palin, or Paul Ryan.
Today it has progressed a step beyond. Deans and presidents of colleges are hollowing them out, turning academia, the cradle of our civilization’s great thinkers, into polytechnic degree sausage factories.
With hundreds of thousands of dollars of education, many reading might think that a good thing. After all, if someone is going to be paying off student loans for years, shouldn’t they learn something practical that helps them pay all of that back?
Steve Jobs fell in love with calligraphy at Reed College, and the world of computers changed. Frank Gehry and thousands of architects have been influenced by Picasso . Even Alan Greenspan’s dystopian selfishness was shaped by his exposure to Ayn Rand at Harvard.
President Obama’s push to keep student loan rates low, and for greater educational opportunity for a wider swath of the populace are designed to create thinkers, without whom opportunity and employment would all but evaporate. The next great computer innovation, an advance in space travel, medicine, weapons technologies that reduce casualties, smarter politicians or even a new generation of journalists to restore the fire wall of the Fourth Estate all require un-offshoreable, outside-the-box thinkers in whatever field into which they find their way.
Thinkers are problematic, though. They’re not easily swayed by sham Americans for Prosperity ads. They can see balance the environment and growth. They aren’t mind-numbed consumerist sheep.
I have always believed that colleges should add more practical education in everything from investing to careers outside of the normal university tracks. A four-year college degree with straight As, though, in a limited polytechnic education without a shred of humanities or exposure to areas outside of a student’s interest is a hollow victory for so many minds that will never investigate the world around them once the body migrates from the hallowed halls of academia.
We have put statistics ahead of learning at the secondary level with Bush-era standardized testing. Now that disease is infecting the centers of higher learning.
“Imagination is more important than knowledge,” said Albert Einstein.
If we let the Far Right strangle our centers of learning, ignorance will replace imagination, and knowledge will be supplanted with rote, rhetoric and rubric for all but the privileged few.
An ignorant electorate can be controlled. An educated electorate can be inspired to create the future.
My shiny two.