If American higher education isn’t already faced with a bevy of challenges, there is the added complication of Covid, which has exposed the vulnerability of many American higher educational institutions, particularly the network of small but highly venerated liberal arts colleges as well as regional universities which generally grew out teacher colleges. These archetypes, despite their considerable differences, share one attribute in common: They have lifted countless millions of working-class Americans to the front ranks of the middle class.
A close childhood friend who teaches at a historically United Methodist Methodist College in the South, says that her institution currently is in negotiation to merge with the state’s flagship university system, which perceives the merger as the culmination of a long-term effort to serve students the southern half of the state.
Yet, there is a deeper dimension to this story beside this university system’s aspirations, one rooted in this nation’s protracted cultural war: The United Methodist leadership, whose membership faces an impending breakup after years of infighting over theological and cultural issues, apparently prefers to part with the school, fearing that the impending schism will undermine the denomination’s ability to support historical United Methodist institutions throughout the country.
Several other factors, it seems, notably the effects of the pandemic, have coalesced to to threaten the pluralism – I prefer pluralism over the more hackneyed term diversity – of many of our nations higher-ed institutions, especially those that have played such a consequential role on empowering the sons and daughters of the red headland’s vast laboring and middle classes.
The privately-supported elite schools, the ones on which our ruling class has depended for decades to maintain their standing within highest reaches of society, have remained essentially unscathed. It’s the schools far below the second-tier elite liberal arts institutions of Williams and Middlebury colleges, for example, and, for that matter, the large public university systems such as the University of Wisconsin and California that lack the endowments to carry them through this crisis.
Small private liberal arts colleges are not the only vulnerable ones: The decline of international student enrollment stemming from the pandemic also threatens the financial viability of regional universities such as my undergrad alma mater, which have also played major roles in elevating generations of working-class Americans.
So it may be that large flagship university systems end up absorbing quite a number of public and private institutions. And to be sure, these beleaguered smaller schools will benefit in sundry ways – higher instructor salaries and expended curricula and physical plants.
But the cost will be a greater uniformity of American higher education and far less pluralism. And I remain unconvinced that this decline of pluralism in U.S. higher education in necessarily a good thing, despite all of the material advantages associated with these mergers.