Want to fix America's political divide? Fix our colleges

Georgetown Slavery
FILE – In this July 10, 2013, file photo, prospective students tour Georgetown University's campus in Washington. The good news is that Americans are saving more than ever for college. The bad news is that the average amount still isn’t enough to cover one year at a four-year public university. In a report released Tuesday. Sept. 9, 2014, the College Savings Plans Network found that the average college savings or prepaid tuition account is now worth about $20,671 _ almost double what these “529” accounts were worth during the dog-days of the recession. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin, File)

David Brooks of the New York Times wrote a column this week that got a lot of attention for all the wrong reasons. If you are of a certain age, you might remember the hit duet that Frank Sinatra sang with his daughter Nancy called “Something Stupid” — the chorus going, “Then I had to spoil it all by saying something stupid like…” In the song, it was “…I love you.” For David Brooks, it was types of ham — soppressata and capicollo — which were the punchline to a bizarre anecdote about how he allegedly embarrassed a never-attended-college friend by taking her to a lunch spot with absurdly cosmopolitan lunch meats on the menu.

The online ridicule was then piled higher that a pastrami sandwich at a Lower East Side deli — which is kind of a shame because (warning: I’m about to express a highly unpopular opinion here) the rest of Brooks’ column actually made a lot of sense. The piece — with an apocalyptic headline, “How We Are Ruining America” — focused on how educated, upper-middle-class elites increasingly erect barriers that prevent social mobility for everybody else, creating class resentment and other bad tidings that are very unhealthy for America’s body politic. This was arguably the best example:

Educated parents live in neighborhoods with the best teachers, they top off their local public school budgets and they benefit from legacy admissions rules, from admissions criteria that reward kids who grow up with lots of enriching travel and from unpaid internships that lead to jobs. It’s no wonder that 70 percent of the students in the nation’s 200 most competitive schools come from the top quarter of the income distribution. With their admissions criteria, America’s elite colleges sit atop gigantic mountains of privilege, and then with their scholarship policies they salve their consciences by offering teeny step ladders for everybody else.

In the non-lunch-meat part of the column, Brooks managed to touch on an issue that I’ve been pondering for a long, long time. The more I’ve covered about American politics in the 21st Century, the more I see that its No. 1 driving force is anger and resentment. And nothing seems to fuel that divide more than the topic of education and how we perceive it — especially at the college level. The evidence is hiding in plain sight. Nothing drove the changes in the American electorate that, for better or worse, gave us President Trump more than level of educational attainment: Trump and his politics of rage surged among white men lacking a college degree, and conversely — while it’s been largely ignored by the pundits — Hillary Clinton killed it in communities with high levels of college education like Philadelphia’s Main Line, where she even outperformed her Democratic predecessor Barack Obama.

Ask a conservative what gets him or her worked up these days, and they’re likely to tell you about the latest “political correctness” outrage on some college campus somewhere. Ask a liberal progressive what he or she is really irked about, and what I hear more often is Republicans’ hostility toward science, especially on climate change. But what lies beneath all these feelings is a much, much bigger problem: Higher education in America is a mess. Even at a time when it’s increasingly difficult to get a job without a diploma from a four-year institution, college in these United States is completely unaffordable, not to mention hard to get into if you don’t come from the right zip code or the right parents. For the lucky and the few who gain admission and can pay that huge bill, universities and their ridiculously overpaid administrators have created an insular world where fitness clubs and posh dorms are a lot easier to find than a “C”, let alone an “F,” on a report card and where controversial viewpoints are too easily censored.

Consider these various strands that have been in the news recently. Depending on your perspective, some of the things may be important and some may be silly, but they all contribute to this big giant mess:

—  A new Pew Research Center poll found that 58 percent of Republicans now think that universities have a negative effect on American life, a dramatic change from just two years earlier when a majority of GOPers (54 percent) said the impact of higher ed was positive. Their viewpoint is completely the opposite of Democrats — 72 percent of whom still think that college is a positive for America.

— Those poll numbers may best be dramatized by the experience of one high-profile school, the University of Missouri, which has seen a dramatic freshman enrollment drop of 35 percent after making national headlines during 2015 protests over campus racism. A New York Times article noted that the aftermath of the unrest has scared off not just white conservatives but non-white applicants worried that the complaints about racial bias on campus were valid. The campus is shedding jobs and programs as a result.

— Writer Richard Reeves has just published a provocative-sounding book called “Dream Hoarders” that argues that benefits in America have flown less to The 1 Percent than The 20 Percent, the broader upper-middle class, and that exclusionary college policies are a big part of this. Wrote Reeves in the New York Times recently: “The United States is the only nation in the world, for example, where it is easier to get into college if one of your parents happened to go there. Oxford and Cambridge ditched legacy preferences in the middle of the last century. The existence of such an unfair hereditary practice in 21st-century America is startling in itself. But I have been more shocked by the way that even supposedly liberal members of the upper middle class seem to have no qualms about benefiting from it.”

Nowhere is the college picture a bigger mess than here in Pennsylvania, where in-state tuition for public institutions is among the highest in the nation, which discourages enrollment (which has been shrinking in recent years) even as the state’s sagging economy desperately needs a better educated workforce. A series of backward-minded funding cuts (Pa. ranks fourth in the nation in that department) and tuition hikes has brought the state system to the crisis point where there was even consideration of some campuses shutting down.

You could write a whole book about all the problems and the potential solutions, and many people have (Philly’s own Sara Goldrick-Rab is a good place to start). The basics are clear: In a time when a college diploma is as critical for success as a high-school degree was in the 20th Century, we need the moral equivalent of war to enact programs that will ensure that no citizens are not attending college because he or she can’t afford it. And ending legacy admissions would be one small step toward the broader goal of opening up campuses to more kids from city rowhouse streets and from rusty ex-factory towns in the Midwest. In return, colleges need to clean up their act: Pay your adjunct professors a lot more and your president a lot less, and again become the beacons of free speech and free exchange of ideas that you used to be.

One or two of those things are typically called “liberal ideas,” and one or two of those things get lumped with “conservative ideas” — but really they just seem like common sense. And here’s the thing: If we make college more accessible to more people, and encourage a greater exchange of ideas after that more diverse student body finally gets there, the results could be less cultural resentment and more understanding of people from different backgrounds. More of our citizens will begin to again trust science, because more of them will be learning science. And perhaps once people stop seeing the American system as rigged — because right now too much of it actually is rigged — then just maybe our politics will grow less bitter and angry, less divided, and more constructive. But that won’t happen unless somehow our current, broken system picks itself off the floor to accomplish this one basic thing: Fix America’s colleges.