America’s Social Contract Gone Awry

Declining by Degrees: Higher Education at Risk describes the current state of higher education and students enrolled in those institutions.  Shortly after World War II, FDR signed the GI Bill, providing financial aid to soldiers returning home from the war in order to provide professional training, thus preventing a surge of individuals on the unemployment rolls.  Additionally, the federally funded Pell Grant program offered economically disadvantaged students the opportunity to afford a higher education degree.  The unwritten understanding, aka America’s social contract, dictated that, where possible, the playing field would be leveled between the haves and have nots through federal assistance.  According to the video, once a college degree proved to lead to more economic success than those without a degree, the social contract between government and citizens became null and void.  The “right” to attend college became more of a privilege, one that was available primarily to those who could afford the privilege.
Several types of academic institutions were highlighted in the film including: Western Kentucky University, a state institution with a high acceptance rate; University of Arizona, another state institution with large resources; Amherst College, a private, exclusive liberal arts college; Community College of Denver.  All four have different students living in a variety of circumstances, different funding structures and various capabilities.  Their similarities are present as well.  Funding cuts that impact the ability to maintain full time professors and unengaged students are amongst the chief concerns shared by the featured institutions.  In terms of students being a product of their academic institution, the persona of the students was indicative of their educational situation.  The students attending less rigorous schools were less likely to be challenged to their potential.  College became a social experience, not a period of professional preparation laying the foundation for a career.  Students commonly described the major difference between high school and college being the struggle with autonomy.  Being disciplined and self-motivated without needing prompting from outside influencers.  Those who weren’t financially advantaged had to make sacrifices in order to afford attending college.  Matriculating to more prestigious institutions without the funds to pay tuition led to a student attending community college.
The film reiterated the saying “the rich keep getting richer” as well as the converse.  On many occasions students with extraordinary abilities, intellectually, athletically and/or financial resources, were all better off than those with average or less resources.  They received more assistance, sometimes more than what was necessary, more resources such as smaller classrooms, learning communities and opportunities for success.  For those who could afford it, being successful in college was sometimes an afterthought.  For those who couldn’t, struggle was constant and consistently threatening their ability to be a student.
The film Declining by Degrees: Higher Education at Risk illustrates the current state of the higher educational system and the need to reaffirm the social contract which was established two generations ago.  In the current academic system, the rich keep getting richer and the less advantaged are required to do whatever is possible to stay afloat.  Having been a student with less resources, the inherent advantages of being “better off” were apparent but unattainable.  My future and the future of my children and family is what motivates me to gain the status of “extraordinarily resourced”.

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