The debate between accessibility and quality of higher education has a long history in the United States, as John Cumbler [ht: mfa] explains.
Now, in the midst of the new austerity, states are abandoning one model—combining excellence with accessibility for many—and retreating to an older model—of quality and accessibility for a few and accessibility without quality for the rest.
States have cut their contribution to public universities, and public universities have raised tuition to make up the shortfall. More and more students are being left behind. To fill this gap some states are looking to the manufacturing model, standardization, mass production, economies of scale and de-skilling of the professorship. This model has already been adapted by for-profit universities, which provide a degree but very little else. State universities have been urged to either abandon excellence for accessibility, or continue the trend of higher tuition and limited accessibility.
This is a world we know about. At its best it is the old bifurcated world of normal colleges and exclusive elite universities. At its worst it is mass-produced diploma mills. It is a world where the best and the brightest elites will get the best education in the world. It is also a world in which the best and the brightest of everyone else will find limited challenge and limited opportunity. But although the world of quality education for the few and second-rate education for the many is not new, the world for those reaching maturity has changed.
Quality education may have been limited in the 19th century, but there existed alternatives to a university degree in on-the-job training for skilled labor or in opening a small business. But that is a lost world. Well-paid, non-college-trained skilled labor is a declining proportion of the labor force, and despite the rhetoric about small businesses, the reality is that few mom and pop businesses survive. The world we are moving toward is one where a great deal of potential will be lost. In the short term states will save money. In the long term it is a strategy for stagnation and loss.