The Unsettling State of Universities

Several articles in the New York Times, The Washington Post, The Los Angeles Times and other publications I read regularly paint a portrait of contemporary universities that is truly unsettling—and that is besides the current attention to sexual assaults on campuses.

The Washington Post reported that an increasing number of students experience food insecurity, the technical term for people who are too poor to buy food. The number of universities’ food pantries has gone up from 4 in 2008 to 121 today. A University of Oregon survey found that 59% of Western Oregon University students had recently experienced food insecurity. Nationwide the Center for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that 14.5% of the population experience food insecurity. Considering this is a category which is associated with lower academic achievement, food insecurity on campuses gains added importance. When added to other topical issues, it does make one take stock.

Most of us know about admissions that seem arbitrary and as one NYT article pointed out the academic record of someone who was accepted was not different from that of someone who wasn’t. This year at most of those institutions we call elite, the acceptance rate was the lowest it has ever been. A chief reason is that preference is given to out of state and overseas students who pay more. Once in, of course, how to pay for increasing tuition, fees and books has become in increasing challenge. Middle class families are stretched to pay their share, students then borrow, and those loans extending for years after graduation tend to be harder and harder to repay. The consequences of an education loan do not easily factor into the salaries waiting for new graduates. More and more researchers are discovering that those loans keep many from being able to buy a home, or defer other aspects associated with middle class life.

There are other issues that add to the troubling picture, such as increased instances of violence on campuses. Fraternities whether on weekends or during hazing rituals have had to confront a large number of accidents, some fatal, due to drunkenness and the kind of behaviors it elicits—behavior which in part gave rise to focusing on the issue of sexual assaults.

All this doesn’t not even touch on the academic side of the equation, nor on the problems faculty members experience, or the current issue of “Trigger Warning”, a new dispute between students and administration on some campuses about whether to issue warnings when certain sensitive topics are about to be discussed. Still it is sufficient to infer the depth of a problem that ought to raise more dander, or at least concern, than it is. For those who do not belong to the top tiers of the social strata, education, or to be more precise the degree it confers on individuals, enables social mobility. In turn social mobility enables both participation in and the growth of the economy, through being home owners, saving for retirement or in turn paying for children’s future college education. When access to that education is limited in all sorts of subtle and not so subtle ways, then education can’t fulfill its function and the society is that much weaker—not to speak of the blight upon thousands and thousands of lives.

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