On the one hand, commentators inveigh against the soaring cost of tuition at elite universities, driven by wasteful luxury, with climbing walls as the invariable insidious example. On the other hand, prospective students and their parents despair over the incredibly competitive admission process to those same colleges, beginning with securing entry to the right preschool, proceeding through an adolescence filled with résumé-burnishing activities, and culminating in the all-important personal essay.
Similar contradictions emerge for the system as a whole. Reports bemoan inadequate college-graduation rates and shortages in vital skills like science and engineering. At the same time, employment options for graduates are so bad that prospective students are told that investing in a college education may be the worst decision they could make.
But the whole picture becomes clearer if you keep in mind one simple fact. Colleges are a mirror of the society they serve. The growth of inequality and entrenched privilege in America (also evident, but less extreme, in other English-speaking countries) is mirrored by the higher-education sector.
At the top, things have never been better, either for the institutions or the students who attend them. But for the middle class, what was once a safe route to ensure that children did at least as well as their parents is now a big gamble, staking crippling student debt against the prospect of entry to the professional classes that make up the top 20 percent of income earners. <Read more.>