From the Editor: Students and the Social Mission

By Michael Ferguson

As a presidential election year again focuses public attention on proposals for student debt forgive­ness and free college, it is worth recalling the long-term trends that have influenced college costs. The AAUP’s recent statement In Defense of Knowledge and Higher Education offers a useful historical summary, noting that public funding for higher education, after grow­ing significantly in the postwar years, entered a period of decline beginning in the 1970s. That disinvestment began—not coincidentally, the statement suggests—just as colleges and universities were opening their doors to historically excluded populations.

The gulf between the ideal of accessible, afford­able, transformative higher education and reality has only widened since then. Total student loan debt today exceeds $1.6 trillion. (Eight years ago, the last time this magazine took stock of the student debt crisis, the figure was approaching $1 trillion.) Inequality among institutions is rising. And although funding has rebounded in some states since the Great Reces­sion, plans for massive cuts to the University of Alaska system may signal a new boldness in attacks on higher education. Commitment to the public good, in Alaska and elsewhere, is becoming ever more attenuated.

Against this diminished understanding of higher education, contributors to this issue of Academe articu­late a broad vision of higher education’s social mission. They insist that college should be accessible to all and that educators, as Jesse Stommel puts it, should “adapt pedagogical approaches for the real and complexly human students who show up in our classrooms.”

Several articles in the issue directly confront ques­tions about whether higher education still serves as a driver of social mobility. The road to college completion for low-income students of color is lined with potholes, Patricia McGuire writes, but minority-serving institu­tions are modeling ways to support the students who most need help. Laura Perna and Taylor Odle, analyzing data on working college students, similarly outline poli­cies and practices that might mitigate the disadvantages that disproportionately accrue to students from under­represented groups.

Student activists are also challenging systemic injus­tices within higher education. At the University of Illinois at Chicago, Jennifer Brier writes, coalitional organizing led by LGBTQ students of color has produced concrete victories for undocumented and transgender students. And on campuses across the country, as Leslie Harris shows, new scholarship and demands for redress have prompted a reckoning with the legacy of slavery.

The issue closes with a pair of meditations on the purposes of education. Eva-Maria Swidler considers the fate of small colleges in an era of commodifica­tion, lamenting the loss of institutions that “make imaginable a world different from the one we are hurtling toward.” Finally, James Ferry—who wrote previously for Academe about his journey from prison to graduate school—explains what keeps him return­ing to prison as a teacher. Like other contributors to this issue, he reminds us that higher education, despite multiplying challenges, continues to serve as a force for liberation.