University of Maryland commencement, 2014 (Jay Baker/Wikimedia Commons)

In After the Ivory Tower Falls, the Pulitzer Prize–winning Philadelphia Inquirer journalist Will Bunch seeks to tell the story of how college promised the American Dream “only to instead crush it.” Bunch’s book is a fine work of history, laying out the stories of many of the key players in American higher education since World War II. But it also makes a powerful argument about the relationship between contemporary U.S. politics and the changing landscape of academe.

In the 1940s, an ambitious, socially conscious federal government almost took the step of making higher education a public good. Instead, it settled for the GI Bill. In failing to capitalize on a rare moment of conservative support for publicly funded higher education, the federal government set the stage for a series of backlashes that not only undid the gains realized by midcentury Americans, but ultimately succeeded in recasting higher education as a “luxury good” for which the taxpayer should bear no burden. As a result of policy and cultural changes that have taken place since the 1960s, Bunch argues, colleges have become outrageously expensive, failing to meet the mandate set for them in earlier decades. One of the tragic results of this history is today’s rancorous political polarization, which increasingly pits those who have college degrees against those who don’t.

Bunch argues that the American people are now divided into four groups: the Left Perplexed, the Left Broke, the Left Behind, and the Left Out. These groups are divided along two axes: age (those old enough to have entered college before 1990 versus those who would have entered later) and educational attainment (those who obtained at least a bachelor’s degree versus those who did not). The older Left Perplexed and younger Left Broke are both college-educated and tend toward the political Left. The Left Behind did not graduate from college and tend toward the Right, while the younger Left Out, also non–college graduates, tend toward political apathy. This last group are the casualties of an exclusionary educational system that has deemed them “unworthy” of the American Dream. They are prone to an alienation and despair that all too often culminate in “deaths of despair”: suicides, drug overdoses, and alcohol-related deaths.

The Left Perplexed took advantage of the midcentury college boom, when higher education was highly affordable. Their college degrees helped them obtain a rewarding middle-class life. But these educated Boomers often have difficulty understanding their children, the Left Broke, who, burdened by student debt and trapped in a roulette of precarious jobs, have turned toward the likes of Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez rather than old-guard centrists such as Hillary Clinton. For them, the illusion of perpetual upward mobility has been shattered.

But Left Perplexed Boomers also have trouble understanding Left Behind Boomers. The Left Behind were once able to make a comfortable middle-class living in manufacturing jobs, but then their employers, following the inexorable logic of capital, fled to foreign shores to take advantage of cheaper labor, leaving a trail of resentment in their wake. The Left Behind, Bunch writes, “thought they’d signed a social contract—that you didn’t need a fancy college education to have a nice life in the United States—only to see it get ripped up right in front of them.” This is the “not-so-quiet-majority” who would eventually be seduced by Donald Trump’s siren song of grievance.

As for Bunch’s fourth group, the Left Out, they have suffered a double tragedy. Not only has this group of uncredentialed younger adults been devastated by the recent “epidemic of despair,” which was already lowering the average American life-expectancy before the pandemic, but, even worse, no one seems to care. “[N]o one is really advocating for political action on their behalf,” Bunch writes—not even their own (generally Republican) elected representatives, who focus more on culture wars than on bringing much-needed help to a whole group of young Americans who have been treated as disposable by both our economy and our political system.

The Left Behind were once able to make a comfortable middle-class living in manufacturing jobs, but then their employers fled to foreign shores to take advantage of cheaper labor.


How did we get here? We might begin by asking how higher education became associated with life-crushing debt. There’s an argument popular among conservatives that today’s college problem is a government problem. The federal government, they argue, was all too willing to hand out massive student loans, regardless of the actual market value of a college education or the likelihood that student borrowers would be able to repay their debt. Meanwhile, universities were all too happy to let students take on huge federally backed loans to cover their skyrocketing tuitions. Since even the brightest eighteen-year-olds are probably ill equipped to judge the likely return on investment for a bachelor’s degree costing $200,000, lending them large amounts of money is arguably predatory. And that, conservative critics say, is exactly what the government has been doing. Its misguided largesse is therefore the root cause of the debt crisis affecting so many of today’s college grads, who collectively owe upwards of $1.7 trillion. Bunch largely agrees with this critique. He vilifies the parent-PLUS loan in particular as the federal government’s attempt to function as a kind of “casino” for parents willing to risk all on the thin hope that a degree from a prestigious, unreasonably expensive college will help their children “cling” to their rung of the disintegrating middle-class ladder.

The conservatives are right to hold government responsible, but they are wrong to do so without considering the social and economic context. And they are wrong to overlook the other bad policies that paved the way for this one—the policies of Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, and a generation of Republican governors, who all sought to transform education from a “public good” funded by the government to a “private good” paid by a student’s (wealthy) parents or with borrowed money. For these politicians and their enablers, college was essentially a credentialing mechanism for white-collar careers, and should therefore be paid for like any other private investment. As Reagan put it, “taxpayers shouldn’t subsidize intellectual curiosity.” This was a far cry from the postwar consensus, according to which the main purpose of higher education was to form citizens and to inoculate them against the kind of authoritarianism the country had just defeated in a world war. (Its other purpose was to provide research that would help our military win the Cold War.)

As Bunch explains, “every generation or so, America’s leaders made a consequential decision that moved the nation further from the G.I. Bill’s promise that higher education could be a public good.” First, in the 1940s, policymakers in Washington missed an opportunity to make higher education a fully funded public good available to all, not only veterans. Then, in the mid-1960s, Washington decided to focus funding on Pell Grants, locking in “the idea of personal merit over taxpayer-funded access for all.” In the 1970s and ’80s, Reagan and other small-government conservatives sought, largely successfully, to privatize college and kill free tuition. They slashed funding for public universities, which had to find new ways to cover their expenses.

At around the same time, the Ivy League, following Harvard, instituted the high-tuition/high-aid model—by contrast with the high-tax/low-tuition model of midcentury America and today’s Europe. This remarkable gamble seemed to pay off. As the Ivies raised their tuitions on the strength of their prestige, state universities were now forced, due to a lack of secure public funding, to raise their tuitions, too. Lacking prestige, they instead sold comfort, increasing campus amenities and luxuries to attract students, as if they were resorts vying for tourists. But how would the students pay for all this? Loan programs were all too happy to help, and a whole cottage industry, underwritten by Wall Street bankers, soon emerged. There was also growing pressure on public universities to seek out tuition dollars from those who could pay, giving admittance slots to wealthy out-of-state students and, ultimately, to rich foreigners. The result was that some state institutions that were built on the 1940s dream of elevating their local communities soon became playgrounds for millionaire kids on their way to inheriting their fathers’ businesses.

In short, Bunch argues, conservative funding cuts are the root cause of our contemporary college woes and all that comes with them. Less public funding leads to higher tuition, which leads to more student debt. Meanwhile, financial exigencies lead college administrators to treat students more like coddled customers. (Bunch has too little to say about how administrators have appropriated to themselves ever increasing shares of those tuition dollars, even as higher education has increasingly relied on underpaid, unbenefited adjuncts—the “gigification” of academia.)

Unfortunately, this set of problems is now so entrenched that there are no easy fixes. We can’t simply wave a wand and remake our whole higher-education system in imitation of Europe’s. Any adequately radical reform would threaten too many interests—higher education is now big business, and student debt a major asset. Meanwhile, the cultural and political division between those who have gone to college and those who haven’t will continue to grow deeper, as new technologies make it easier for Bunch’s uncredentialed Left Out and Left Broke to find alternative sources of information, or misinformation, in lieu of a proper education.

Ideally, we would simply go back to treating higher education as a public good, but the political obstacles to that are likely insurmountable, at least for now.


What to do? Ideally, we would simply go back to treating higher education as a public good, but the political obstacles to that are likely insurmountable, at least for now. Bunch argues that the best way forward might be to expand our national-service programs. He supports a “universal gap year,” taken after high school. Young Americans from all backgrounds could thus get to know and understand each other better. (The effect of integrated service programs in ameliorating white racism is well documented.) Participants in national-service programs could help build a common vision of America, gain meaningful practical experience, and gain some maturity before entering college or getting a job. (Bunch notes that World War II veterans actually outperformed their classmates in college.) This is an idea worth pursuing, and there appears to be bipartisan support for some version of it.

Student-loan relief may be another idea worth pursuing, but Democratic politicians must be careful to avoid giving the impression that they are simply rewarding a growing Democratic constituency—college grads—while continuing to ignore those who didn’t go to college. The latter are understandably unhappy with a system that makes economic security all but impossible for anyone without a college degree. Any solution to the higher-ed problem has to deal with all its aspects: debt-relief; equitable access for those who are underserved (for Harlem and for Appalachia); access to, and respect for, alternative paths such as trade schools. Achieving all these goals will require our policymakers to consider the whole country, and not just the members of their own political coalitions. (One reason nobody in Washington seems to care much about the Left Out is that they tend not to vote.)

Traditionally, the “American Dream” has been expressed in terms of perpetual economic progress: I want my kids to do better than me. The goal was to get as much education as possible in order to earn more than one’s parents did. But is this really all the American Dream consists of? And if so, shouldn’t we expect the mess we now face in higher education? The crushing student debt, the admissions scandals, the campuses built to rival Xanadu—this is what happens to college when the American Dream is untethered from any meaningful conception of the good life and directed instead toward mere accumulation.

What if the American Dream meant something very different? What if it meant a guarantee of basic economic security for everyone, along with the promise of as much education as each student could make use of? It’s not as if we can’t afford it—do we really need to spend as much on our military budget as the next nine countries combined? Pace Reagan and his followers, taxpayers should subsidize intellectual curiosity. Doing so serves both students and their communities, which benefit not only from the fruits of scientific research but also from the fully developed intellectual virtues of their citizens. A higher-education system reformed to serve the common good would help revive the American Dream, and America itself, by correcting the economic inequality and political polarization that now threaten it.

After the Ivory Tower Falls 
How College Broke the American Dream and Blew Up Our Politics—And How to Fix It
Will Bunch
William Morrow
$23.19 | 320 pp.

Ryan M. Brown specializes in ancient Greek philosophy. He currently teaches philosophy at Villanova University and at a Philadelphia-area high school.

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Published in the May 2023 issue: View Contents
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