Since at least the 1930s, American Jews, like other ethnic minorities, have taken it for granted that a college or university education is necessary for economic success, social advancement and meaningful civic participation. Institutions of higher learning actively compete for Jewish students, and Jews are represented disproportionately among the faculty and as donors and mega-donors.
Several changes threaten this highly successful equation, primarily outlandish costs and out of touch values. Each has a disproportionate impact on Jews.
According to the National Center for Education Statistics, between 1997 and 2007 the average cost of higher education rose 23 percent at private institutions and 30 percent at public institutions. At Cornell University the 2010-2011 increase was 4.5 percent and brought tuition to $39,450. At Sarah Lawrence the total cost of tuition along with room and board is $58,332, up over 6 percent from last year. To keep this in perspective, the U.S. inflation rate for the 12 months ending in August 2010 was 1.15 percent. In contrast, the total cost for a year at an average SUNY is $20,050.
Where has all the money gone? More and more luxurious accommodations for students account for part, but a recent study by the Goldwater Institute pointed to another, “Between 1993 and 2007, the number of full-time administrators per 100 students at America’s leading universities grew by 39 percent, while the number of employees engaged in teaching, research or service only grew by 18 percent. Inflation-adjusted spending on administration per student increased by 61 percent during the same period, while instructional spending per student rose 39 percent.”
Much of this is funded by the federal government, which annually averages $100 billion in student loans, compared to $10 billion in private loans. Interest rates on Federal Stafford Loans range between 4.5 percent and 6.8 percent, and in 2007 the average student had a cumulative debt of almost $28,000. With unemployment rates near 10 percent, the ability of students to even find jobs to pay back loans is now jeopardized. The financial challenge for Jewish parents in particular, some of whom already extended themselves on day schools for their children, is obvious and immense.
Investments in day schools are based on a commitment to Jewish values. But what Jewish kids find at college is frequently at odds with those values, even broadly construed. For one thing, opposition to Israel is everywhere, from “apartheid weeks,” to angry Muslim Student Associations, to instructors who regard Israel as original sin — the root cause of the Middle East’s and the world’s problems, or an outpost of imperialism, colonialism and capitalism. Jewish students are too often required to give up Israel as the price of admission to “progressive” life on campus.
For another, while there is little overt anti-Semitism, except from radical Muslim and far left students, campus life is too often freighted with hostility toward religious or other strong beliefs. Inside the classroom there is a schizophrenic view of identity, which is acceptable for most minority groups but not for Jews, who are too often regarded as quintessentially privileged “whites.” The university need not always be comfortable for Jewish students or anyone else. But the lack of enthusiasm for Jewish values, like the lack of enthusiasm for American values, hardly creates a supportive environment.
What should Jews do about this? First, Jews and others should recognize the situation for what it is. Private colleges and universities are over-priced and do a mediocre job preparing kids for the 21st century job market, while other options exist in community colleges and state institutions. Furthermore, some of the trades that gave our grandparents their entry into American society and the middle class are still there, along with new ones. Not every kid should go to college, even Jewish ones. Plumbers in Westchester make $110 per hour.
Jewish parents should look carefully at the situation and ask, what is best for my child? What institution is the best fit for his or her personality, interests and values? What might they find there educationally and Jewishly? How do we pay for it, and, ultimately, is it worth it? Resisting the taboo that “every American Jewish kid must go to college regardless” is vital. Jewish donors should be asking themselves the same questions and more, like what are institutions really doing with my money? How do my gifts reflect all my values? Resisting the bill of goods sold by university development officers and not being lulled into self-satisfaction by buildings with Jewish names is key.
More and more influential people are looking hard at higher education and don’t like what they see. Peter Thiel, founder of Clarium Capital and an early Facebook investor, recently noted to the Wall Street Journal, “University administrators are the equivalent of subprime mortgage brokers selling you a story that you should go into debt massively, that it’s not a consumption decision, it’s an investment decision. Actually, no, it’s a bad consumption decision.”
Whether or not he’s correct about college as an investment or as consumption, the larger truth is that pins are pricking away at the higher education bubble. American Jews need to be at the forefront of rethinking how higher education should be structured, implemented and funded, and most of all, what it is for.
What is the proper balance between learning higher-level skills in math, science and engineering, and “critical thinking” derived from the study of literature, art and history? Where else can these be learned in the 21st century? What is the proper role of technology in educating, as opposed to bricks-and-mortar facilities? What, in the end, is a reasonable price to pay for some or all of this? Having been beneficiaries of higher education and among its most vigorous supporters, it is time for American Jews to step up again with new ideas.
Alex Joffe lives in Westchester. From 2006 to 2010 he was director of research for The David Project.