Economics is chipping away at the soul of US colleges

The United States was heading into the Great Recession of 2008 when University World News published its first edition in 2007. So it should not be surprising that the most significant challenge faced by US higher education in the past 10 years is nothing new: rising tuition and other fees paid by students.

The defining moment came in 2012, when total student debt surpassed a mind-boggling US$1 trillion. Today's college students may well become the first generation of students who will not be better off than their parents.

Along with buying a home, a college education is supposed to represent the American dream. But it is getting harder to pull off both.

Economists have crunched the numbers every which way to demonstrate the implications. According to the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, the biggest increase in non-housing debt last year occurred in student loans.

Rather than buying a home, many recent college graduates are moving in with their parents because they can't afford to make student loan payments.

Arguably the worst off are student borrowers who drop out before completing their degree – a 2015 survey of 25,500 American adults put that figure at nearly three in 10.

If the potential long-term consequences for both the borrower and the nation's economy remain murky, the response from universities has been clear. The past decade has seen a steady stream of instances in which university leaders are making choices that belie the long-cherished values upon which US higher education has traditionally prided itself, such as access and upward mobility.

In the early 2000s, public and private colleges around the country heralded a renewed commitment to educating students from across the socio-economic spectrum. Seeking to counter their image as bastions of the elite, one high-profile university after another rolled out a new plan for financial aid that essentially guaranteed that its low- and middle-income students would not graduate with debt.

But then the recession hit. In 2014, the University of Virginia, which launched a no-loan student aid package in 2004, said the programme had gotten too big and too expensive to continue, a victim of its own success. Never mind that the university had managed to come up with the money to build a US$12.4 million state-of-the-art squash court, as an editorial in the student newspaper pointed out. A gift from an alumnus, the facility was soon attracting top-level collegiate recruits to the university, the squash coach said.

Other universities have built luxury dorms and well-equipped recreation centres, spending more to attract students from out of state and around the world who could afford to pay the full sticker prices. Public universities, which have perhaps the most at stake, point a finger at state governments for dramatic cuts in higher education funding.

Humanities take a hit

The concept of higher education's role in producing a well-rounded citizenry also is taking a hit. Within the University of Wisconsin system, the Stevens Point campus recently announced plans to cut 13 humanities majors, including most art programmes, geography, several languages, music literature, philosophy and political science – the kinds of majors that represent the very heart of a liberal arts education.

In their place would be created several career-focused majors in the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM, for short), as well as programmes in management and marketing, and finance.

There was enough of an uproar, both nationally and across the campus, that the administration has since agreed to look for alternative solutions to a projected US$4.5 million budget deficit.

Previous generations of students have protested against policies linked to faraway places: the war in Vietnam, investments in apartheid South Africa, underpaid sweatshop workers in Latin America. Now, college students around the country protest on their own behalf.

The point is not to single out particular universities for particular judgment calls but to consider the cumulative effect of what these judgments tell us about higher education in the United States today.

Here's another example: More than any other country, the United States celebrates its collegiate athletics. College sports give communities, whether on campus or across the state, something to rally around. But a wave of scandals over the past decade reveals a seamier side of big-time college sports.

At Pennsylvania State University and Michigan State University, a popular football coach and a sports doctor for gymnasts, respectively, turned out to be sexual predators. In both cases, the administrations had ample warning that something was amiss but, faced with a choice between doing the right thing and protecting a lucrative brand, did nothing.

Big-time college sports can rake in big-time money, but one of the ironies about college sports is that most of them are money-losers and end up being subsidised through university funds and student fees. That raises the question of how a subsidy might otherwise be spent.

The fundamental and non-partisan concerns around college affordability in the United States has aroused growing interest and more aggressive tactics from the federal government.

As it was finishing out its second term, in 2008, the George W Bush administration challenged universities to prove their worth and urged families to shop around for colleges just as they do for a car. The Obama administration also cracked down on higher education, and in particular the emerging for-profit sector, where the loan defaults and student dropouts are particularly high.

During the presidential elections in 2016, proposals for free higher education became a theme. Meanwhile, Silicon Valley had stepped in to create what Kevin Carey of the New America Foundation, a liberal think-tank in Washington, describes as "a parallel higher education universe", one that offers an education but bypasses federal regulations altogether.

Today, the cost issue remains unresolved as Congress prepares to take up reauthorisation of the Higher Education Act, which has languished for nearly a decade.

Under the Trump administration, the outrage has moved on to other things, in particular immigration policies that threaten to close the doors of higher education on children of immigrants to the United States and limit enrolments of foreign students, a key source of revenue for more and more US colleges and universities.

And so the narrative continues to evolve. And the economics of college chips away at the soul of US higher education.