2013: The Year America Went Back to College

Udacity co-founder Sebastian Thrun

Photo by Brendan Hoffman/Getty Images for Smithsonian magazine

By  for Slate.

It is the time of year when writers either resist or wallow in the social convention known as the year-in-review retrospective. Rather than be a hero, I have decided to cave gracefully. Looking over the year that was, the increased coverage of higher education is rather amazing. Major news outlets like the New York Times have always covered the goings on at Ivy League quads, but this year the mainstream media seriously interrogated higher education as a complex ecosystem. This year America went to college because America is really nervous about everything College-with-a-capital-is supposed to mean: mobility, meritocracy, and the American dream.

Speaking of the Times, they devoted a lot of resources to long-form reporting on higher ed this year. Their coverage of what researchers call tuition discounting at expensive universities is an example of how the higher-ed inside game jumped into popular awareness in 2013. The AtlanticPolitico, and yours truly here at Slate started delving into the complexity of higher ed memes in ways that had once been primarily the domain of niche publications like Inside Higher Ed. Nonprofit initiatives such as the New America Foundation’s Higher Ed Watch leveraged a steady stream of empirical research on higher-ed trends from the likes of PolicyMic and the Brookings Institution. Demos best exemplified how this convergence of in-depth analysis and resources from intersecting organizations made for better analysis. Demos didn’t just pick up on a Century Foundation report on declining public investment in community colleges. It put those findings in the context of trends in for-profit higher education and skyrocketing student loan debt. Demos also produced what was, pound-for-pound, my favorite white paper of the year: Its empirically grounded analysis of the long-term effects of student loan debt applies rigorous social science methods to a question that matters to millions of Americans. Even better, the report is well-written, approachable, and readily available. That is research and analysis that matters.

Our obsession with higher education often came out in stories that were ostensibly about completely separate issues. Coverage of the federal government shutdown in October featured a lot of student voices, but little of it focused on working-class and poor students, whose food and child care subsidies were hit hard because wealthy pols in Washington couldn’t play nicely in their publicly subsidized sandbox. And while you might be hard-pressed to think of a fodder less suited for a higher-ed think piece than the morass that is the U.S. tax code, Elizabeth Stoker and Matthew Bruenig pulled off a wicked smart analysis in Salon of how inequalities manifest through tax policies, are rewarded by legacy admissions at prestigious universities, and altogether make a mockery of American meritocracy.

The Times declared 2012 “the year of the MOOC,” but there was considerable time-lag. A database search of U.S. newspapers shows 286 references to massive open online courses in 2012; that’s a sizable increase over 2011’s grand total of three MOOC references, but it’s dwarfed by 2013’s 1,351 references. (And that’s with a week left in the year. If Coursera’s Andrew Ng catches a cold on New Year’s and makes a MOOC about it, there could be a spike.)

If we’re hyperanxious about college access, costs, and returns, it is because we’re hyperanxious about the fissures in our social contract that college is supposed to patch up.

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