It’s called the “paper ceiling” –– the barriers for skilled job seekers who lack a bachelor’s degree. Amid the brouhaha in recent years over admissions scams and student debt, a new line of attack is emerging against higher education. This one is being described as an ontological threat in that it questions the existence and value of college itself, while accusing the system of perpetuating multiple forms of inequity. Of course, higher education often has found itself a political football in the past. What makes this time different is its critique of qualities universities typically have seen as their strength.
Everyone knows it’s been a tough few years for higher education. Even before the pandemic, colleges and universities were seeing public opinion souring over rising costs, political correctness, and faculty misbehavior –– causing more than a few students and their families to start doubting the value of degree. With enrollments dropping during the “great disruption” at a pace not seen for half a century, concurrent changes in the American workplace have rendered college degrees unnecessary for a growing number of high wage jobs. Yet many employers require four-year credentials anyway, in what some observers see as an antiquated habit and a cover for discrimination.
The numbers are deceptively simple – that 75% of new jobs insist on a bachelor’s degree, while only 40% of potential applicants have one. According the advocacy group Opportunity@Work, employers mistakenly equate college completion with work aptitude, while disregarding self-acquired knowledge or non-academic experience. The group asserts that the nation’s undervalued workforce “has developed valuable skills through community college, certificate programs, military service, or on-the-job learning, rather than through a bachelors degree. Workers with experience, skills, and diverse perspectives are held back by silent barrier.” As a consequence, over 50% of the American skilled workforce has been under employed and underpaid. More concerning still is that such discrimination is unevenly distributed. Within a 70-million worker cohort of what are termed STARs (Skilled Through Alternative Routes) employees, one finds 61% of Black workers, 55% of Hispanic/Latinos, and 61 of veterans.
Not that academia has ignored these issues. Many schools know full-well that students want jobs, especially those majoring in science, engineering, technology, or business. Industry partnerships for job preparation are common, not to mention research and “innovation” programs. Equity and diversity programs likewise have become more robust, particularly in recent years. But the quality and quantity of these efforts varies from school-to-school by area of specialization. Unsurprisingly, the educational establishment views its shortfalls to argue for more money and capacity. Pushing student loans and tuition discounts to boost enrollments, universities often cite statistics that their grads have lifetime earnings up to $1-million more than those without the degree. Many also assert the role of college in providing intellectual development, critical awareness, and socialization.
But public opinion isn’t so sure, with Pew Research finding only 16% of Americans believe college does a good job of preparing students for well paying careers in today’s economy. Certain cohorts of the population always has held degrees of anti-intellectualism and resentment toward academic elites. But now even grads themselves express doubts, with four in ten saying their degrees didn’t help them find work or do their jobs. The general public is divided on what higher education should do, according to Pew, which reported that 40% of respondents viewed college as a place for personal growth, and 60% countered that it should focus more on teaching job skills. Push back from inside the university enters this debate as well, with some faculty resenting the anti-intellectualism and vocationalism of the “corporate university.” Meanwhile, a new brand of groups like DIVESTU and Turning Point advocate the defunding of universities and prosecuting them for fraud.
Amid these disagreements, a growing bipartisan movement now is recognizing that America’s fixation with bachelor’s degrees ignores the many well-paid positions not requiring degrees, and that pace at which technology is creating more such jobs. Articles now appear regularly in publications like the Chronicle of Higher Education which recently ran a piece entitled “Higher Education’s Existential Crisis,” stating that “a shifting social and economic landscape has only intensified the questioning of the purpose of higher education and who it serves” and that “college and university leaders need to come together to protect higher education and collectively articulate the narrative of value.”
But it isn’t only job applicants who miss out. The entire economy suffers from narrow approaches to career preparation. The rising role of technology has meant that 37% of skills in highest demand have changed since 2016, according to data collected the Burning Glass Institute (BGI) on over 15-million jobs. One in five such skills (22%) is totally new, with positions changing rapidly in areas like finance, design, media, management, human relations, and IT. Meanwhile, press accounts abound about jobs going unfilled in critical fields because employers can’t find “qualified” applicants. BGI says “the US spends far less on worker development than most other wealthy nations, which has made it difficult for its workforce and supply chain to meet current challenges.” According to Andy Van Kleunan of the nonprofit National Skills Coalition, the nation’s workforce strategy has atrophied because it relied too much on degree holders, when it “should be investing in all layers of our workforce.”
Little wonder that students are opting out of college at record rates. In a tight economy, only the wealthy can afford an education that promises no job at the end. The economic class division of higher education certainly isn’t lost on 68% of college students who must borrow to pay for school, the majority of whom will spend decades of their lives paying off $1.7 trillion in tuition debt –– while deferring things like buying first houses or starting families. Conditioned to see college as a requirement for the American Dream, many find themselves stuck with a flawed educational product that is increasingly overpriced, loaded with unnecessary frills, and punitive to anyone unfamiliar with its rules and culture.
Compounding this problem is the inequity running rampant inside colleges and universities in ways only recently coming to light. To make up for lagging enrollment numbers, schools increasing factor willingness to pay (or borrow) over metrics that predict academic success and graduation. Once students get to college, they often find themselves struggling in poorly taught courses staffed by underpaid and overworked part-time faculty. A growing literature now documents the once-untold story of campus cost cutting, especially as it shortchanges students with learning differences, special needs, or limited experience with college life. All of this contributes to the rapid rise of student stress, academic failure, and drop-out rates.
This new crisis in higher education is hardly a secret, yet it mostly gets viewed through symptoms: rising tuitions, budget cuts, student failure, anxiety, unemployment, etc. Because of this, it’s not the type of problem resolvable with an single fix. Doing away with college certainly isn’t the answer at a time when all young people need the critical skills to make smart decisions for themselves and each other as workers, consumers, and citizens. Pretending the problem will just go way won’t work either. At this point nearly every one involved agrees that much needs changing in the way higher education is conceived and how it operates.
Nascent movements like Critical University Studies seem one place to start. Writing an early article on the this, Jeffrey J. Williams argued that any true reform of higher education must involve the many stakeholders inside and outside of institutions: students, professors, union organizers, business leaders. A growing body of helpful information/research is now becoming available, like the online “Critical University Studies Resources” from Northwestern University’s Program in Critical Theory is listing of current articles on the topic. Duke University Press offers a “Critical University Studies Syllabus” with links to online readings, largely free of charge. Both Palgrave MacMillan and Johns Hopkins University Press now have book series in university studies as well. Key in all of this is the need to begin a conversation, especially within an academic culture that all too often has seen itself exempt from the practicalities of the world around it. Unless something changes soon, higher educations existential crisis may become very real indeed.
 “The Paper Ceiling,” STARs (Jul. 21, 2022) https://opportunityatwork.org/thepaperceiling/ (accessed Jul. 22, 2022).
 “STARs Skilled Through Alternative Routes,” Opportunity@Work (Jul.2022) https://www.ssa.gov/policy/docs/research-summaries/education-earnings.html (accessed Jul. 21, 2022).
 “Education and Lifetime Earnings,” Social Security Administration (n.d.) https://www.ssa.gov/policy/docs/research-summaries/education-earnings.html (accessed Jul. 21, 2022).
 “The Value of a College Education,”
Pew Research Center (Oct. 6, 2016) https://www.pewresearch.org/social-trends/2016/10/06/5-the-value-of-a-college-education/ (accessed Jul. 32, 2022).
 Jason Simon “Higher Education’s Existential Crisis,” Chronicle of Higher Education (Jul. 22, 2022) https://insights.simpsonscarborough.com/higher-education-existential-crisis (Jul. 23, 2022).
 Mark Sigelman, et. al., “Shifting Skills, Moving Targets, and Remaking the Workforce,:
 Eleanor Muller, “‘This is a Crisis Point: Job Training Deficit Leaves Critical Jobs Unfilled,” Politico (May 26, 2022) https://www.politico.com/news/2022/05/26/fix-workforce-development-inflation-surges-00033745 (accessed Jul. 22, 2022).
 Jeffrey Williams, Deconstructing Academe: The Birth of Critical University Studies, Chronicle of Higher Education (Feb. 19, 2012)) https://www.chronicle.com/article/deconstructing-academe/?cid2=gen_login_refresh&cid=gen_sign_in (accessed Jul. 22, 2022).
 Northwestern University “Critical University Studies Resources” (n.d.) Northwestern University “Critical University Studies Resources” (n.d.) https://criticaltheory.northwestern.edu/mellon-project/critical-theory-in-the-global-south/linked-inter-university-teaching-cooperations/critical-university-studies-resources.html (accessed Jul. 22, 2022).
 “”Critical University Studies Syllabus,” Duke University Press (Feb. 1, 2022)https://dukeupress.edu/Explore-Subjects/Syllabi/Critical-University-Studies-Syllabus (accessed Jul. 22, 2022).