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College is increasingly out of reach for many students. What went wrong?

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. How did college go from being the doorway to the American dream to the nightmare of starting adult life deep in debt, unsure of whether your degree will help you get a job that even pays enough to pay off that debt. How do we go from the 1944 GI Bill, which offered World War II veterans - or at least white ones - easy access to college, to now the stress of today of trying to get into the right college? And how did colleges and universities become a target of the right? My guest, Will Bunch, addresses these and other related questions in his new book, "After The Ivory Tower Falls: How College Broke The American Dream And Blew Up Our Politics - And How To Fix It."

Bunch is a national columnist for The Philadelphia Inquirer, focusing on social injustice, income inequality, politics and government. The roots of his new book go back about 15 years when he was a reporter at the Philadelphia Daily News and his two children were in grade and middle school. As they struggled to make ends meet, he wondered how he'd ever be able to afford sending his children to a good college, especially during the two years when they'd both be in college. Will Bunch, welcome back to FRESH AIR. And congratulations on your book.

WILL BUNCH: Thanks so much, Terry. Thanks for having me back. I appreciate it.

GROSS: So your grandmother started a small college that was a secretarial college and then a business school. Your father - you know, your grandmother's son - went to college. You went to college. What did it mean to you? What did college mean to you?

BUNCH: In the 20th century, college really became the American dream. It certainly was true in my family. There was just this innate sense that the path of life was to do better than the generation that came before you, right? So my grandmother, I think who always regretted never having the opportunity to go to college herself, even as she was, you know, recruiting kids and building this college in Peoria, you know, really pushed her kids to go to college. My dad got a full scholarship to go to Trinity College in Connecticut, so we took a big leap up the ladder.

And when I was growing up, I wanted to not just go to college, but I wanted to go to the best college possible. So I was really focused on trying to get into an Ivy League school. I did actually end up going to Brown University. And I kind of assumed the same path for my kids. And my kids - I have two children. They're both very bright. But by the time they came of age in the 2010s, really the whole college environment had changed. This idea of going up another step up the ladder, for so many families, so many middle-class families like mine, I think the idea is more clinging to the ladder, you know, and not falling backwards, you know, as college gets more expensive and more competitive.

GROSS: In writing about how college became part of the American dream, you go back to the GI Bill of 1944. The GI Bill gave certain benefits to returning World War II veterans. How did access to college become part of the benefits received by veterans?

BUNCH: Well, the GI Bill, which is such a landmark achievement, because it's really the first time that we experimented with making college a public good. And so when World War II was at a point where in 1944, it looked like victory over the - Germany and Japan was coming into focus, the government said, what can we provide them? You know, what if we gave them different opportunities? What if we gave them, you know, enhanced unemployment benefits? What if we gave them job training? And what if what if we gave a college benefit?

And you have to understand, in the 1940s, more than half of Americans didn't graduate high school. The amount of people who had a bachelor's degree in the 1940s was about 5%. Policymakers didn't really think a lot of these veterans were going to want to use the college benefit. It was just this kind of added perk in the program. In fact, that's why they offered such a sweet deal, that it was not only free tuition, but students received a stipend for books and living expenses so they could live. You know, a lot of these veterans were older. Some of them were married or had kids, but now they could afford to go to college. And it really got America thinking about, how do we expand college opportunities for even more of the middle class?

GROSS: So the GI Bill enabled veterans to go to any college they wanted to. Like, how did that work?

BUNCH: Yes. I mean, it was a remarkable benefit for the time. You could and many people did go to Ivy League schools or private institutions. You know, many campuses saw their enrollment double from the end of World War II to just a few years later. And veterans, you know, some schools had to build Quonset huts on the edge of campus to accommodate all these veterans. And, you know, what it showed was that there was just this strong desire for education out there and for people to want to have this opportunity to maybe move up from a working class factory existence to a more white collar lifestyle to maybe a career that was built around knowledge.

GROSS: Well, first of all, you know, I want to mention something you point out in the book was that this was a great opportunity for returning veterans. Very few of those veterans were women. So it was an opportunity, really, for men and that most women were excluded from. And also, most Black people were excluded. Most Black veterans were excluded from this benefit, too. How did that happen?

BUNCH: It wasn't under the law. It was interesting. Black veterans tended to be excluded because regional administrators were given a lot of leeway over how the program ran. So as you can imagine, regional administrators in the segregated South did everything they could to steer Black veterans away from college. Remember, there were other benefits, like job training and other benefits aside from the college benefits. So you saw a lot of Black veterans steered away from college, although Black college enrollment did rise noticeably during that period.

GROSS: And college at that point, the way it was envisioned wasn't just about training for a job. It had like a higher purpose. President Truman, who succeeded Roosevelt, appointed a commission on higher education in 1946. And Truman said that we need to ensure that higher education would take its proper place in our national effort to strengthen democracy at home and to improve our understanding of our friends and neighbors everywhere in the world. So the emphasis was on like liberal arts education, a well-rounded person. How did that affect the direction of college and the expectations of students?

BUNCH: You know, the GI Bill and the surge in college enrollment came on the heels of not just World War II, but the Great Depression. You know, you had the big ideological movements of the 20th century, fascism, communism, and there was a lot of interest in promoting democracy. And educators felt this strongly that giving people college opportunities wasn't just a way to have a more knowledgeable workforce, but it was a way to produce better citizens.

And there was - so there was a lot of conversation in the 1940s and '50s around this notion that we call liberal education, or sometimes it's also called general education, that college shouldn't just be to learn, you know, one single career skill, but you should learn a broad array of subjects, that there should be more of a focus on great literature, the humanities, that more and more students should learn the social sciences, philosophy, which really boomed during those years. You know, sociology really took off as a major that, you know, in producing more well-rounded students that would promote better global understanding because people were very concerned about not having World War III. It would produce better citizens who would participate more in democracy. And students really responded to this.

GROSS: Now, things started to change in the '60s because colleges became a place where students - many students became politicized. Many students became activists. Many of the young civil rights activists got started on college campuses. I mean, think of - as you point out, think of some of the sit-ins at lunch counters. Those were often college students - SNCC, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, which was a really important part of the civil rights movement. And then after that, you've got, like, the antiwar activists on campus and students demanding changes in the way education worked. The - you know, the feminist movement was very strong on campus. So what impact did that start to have politically in terms of a backlash against liberal arts education?

BUNCH: Well, basically what happened in the 1960s is the kind of thing that - you know, the CIA calls this blowback - right? - when you pursue a goal and people turn against you - in this case, all the lofty ideals of the '40s and '50s about promoting democracy through education. It really worked. You know, you had these kids, you know, studying philosophy, studying the great thinkers and thinking about how to make a better society. And they started looking at what was happening in American society. The lunch counter sit-ins that started in Greensboro in 1960 just electrified campuses because it was just such a jolt to the conformity of that era, which a lot of students found stultifying.

There was just very palpable excitement, first at the HBCUs. But then a lot of white kids said, we want to support this movement. Students at predominantly white universities started going to the Woolworths in their hometowns and started protesting. And it started this cycle - you know, the Berkeley Free Speech Movement of 1964, which was basically over, what rights do students have to express their political views on campus? And, you know, students basically won that protest. They convinced the faculty to side with them. And they won the right to speak out and distribute literature on campus. And that just flowed right into the anti-Vietnam War movement. And you had a conservative establishment that thought this was going too far or it was getting out of hand.

GROSS: And during the - it was - the Berkeley Free Speech Movement kind of coincides with Ronald Reagan becoming governor of California. What did he do to try to change the political atmosphere on campus?

BUNCH: Ronald Reagan emerged as an underdog candidate for governor of California in 1966. And this was right after the Berkeley Free Speech Movement. It was when you started seeing publicity about the counterculture of, you know, kids wearing blue jeans and having these parties with the wild psychedelic screens, with the music from the Jefferson Airplane or the Grateful Dead. And Ronald Reagan said famously that taxpayers should not be funding the intellectual curiosity of students. And this was a defining, you know, governmental philosophy for him.

When he won in a landslide that fall - when he took office, you know, he tried to impose tuition. Colleges in California had been free. And, in fact, that was basically part of the state constitution and something that was cherished in California - the idea that higher education for all its citizens would be free. And Reagan thought that, you know, free tuition basically encouraged kids to rebel against the establishment. So he launched this long crusade to - he wasn't - you know, he had political opposition. And he wasn't able to increase tuition right away. But he did raise fees, and he basically set the groundwork for higher tuition in California. And then it became higher tuition in other states as well as the backlash spread.

GROSS: Let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more. If you're just joining us, my guest is Will Bunch, author of the new book "After The Ivory Tower Falls." We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF DAN AUERBACH SONG, "HEARTBROKEN, IN DISREPAIR")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Will Bunch, author of the new book "After the Ivory Tower Falls: How College Broke The American Dream And Blew Up Our Politics And How to Fix It." He's a columnist at the Philadelphia Inquirer.

So a conservative or right-wing attack on colleges is a kind of theme through the second half of the 20th century and onward. You have McCarthy, you know, during the red-baiting era, closely examining colleges and universities, Reagan as governor in California and then maybe as president - I'm not sure...

BUNCH: Yeah.

GROSS: ...You know, worrying about the effect of college campuses. Rush Limbaugh, when he started on radio, was attacking college professors and the culture on campuses. Is - do you see - I mean, I think the answer is yes. How do you see colleges and universities today as being attacked by the right?

BUNCH: I think the whole idea of critical thinking, of, you know, rational inquiry has in one way or another just consistently posed a threat to the American right. And it's funny because the issues have often varied, you know? In the 1960s, the issues were racial segregation and the Vietnam War. Whereas today, you know, the issues are more things like policing, you know, the things that we saw in the George Floyd protests, or LGBTQ+ rights. And a big one today is climate change. You know, America is unique in the world in the amount of climate change denial among the citizenry. And, you know, you've had companies like ExxonMobil and big corporations funding these think tanks to create doubt about what was being taught at universities about climate change.

GROSS: So we've talked about the backlash against the culture on college campuses. Let's talk about tuition 'cause that is such a big concern for all students and parents now. What started the trend of skyrocketing tuition?

BUNCH: Several things happened at once. You know, as we discussed, I do feel part of it was the political backlash, that taxpayers were no longer interested in giving a blank check to public universities. And you've seen - you know, in my home state of Pennsylvania in the late 20th century, taxpayers paid 75% of the cost of public universities. Today, that number is only 25%. And the difference is made up in tuition that - you know, students and their families have to pay it. And in most cases, they have to borrow money to make it happen. This wasn't the only thing that was happening, though. Obviously, the economy began to change dramatically in the 1970s. You know, you had that period of stagflation and slowing job growth. And so this was also a reason for decreased government support.

Interestingly, you know, colleges were starting to panic in the late '70s because also, the baby boom was winding down, and they were worried about, how were they going to attract students? And, you know, Harvard is such a pacesetter for so many things in the higher education field. And Harvard, in 1978, decided they would do a large tuition increase, for that time, of $850 a year, which, I think, was about 17%. And they said, well, we know that people who - certain people who are wealthy, who want the prestige of a Harvard education will pay this. Some of the extra money, we'll plow back into discounts for some of the middle-class students who go here. And so they created this model.

It's called the high-tuition, high-aid model, and it worked. You know, applications didn't drop at all. So every year for the next decade, they raised tuition $850 every year. And this really started the cycle that we have known for the last 40 years of tuition going up every year. And what colleges learned is that families looking on where to send their kids to college weren't shopping for the best price; they were shopping for prestige.

GROSS: You refer to the high-tuition, high-aid model. Where does the aid come in? Like, does - so it's a - tuitions have been rising. Where does the aid of the high-tuition, high-aid model come in?

BUNCH: Well, Ivy League schools, you know, like Harvard, are able to do a little bit more with financial aid than some of their competitors. You know, these schools have billion-dollar endowments, and some of those endowments can be funneled into financial aid so they can give discounts to middle-class students. And then for lower-income students, you know, they have these so-called need-blind admission policies. Now, there's a lot of debate over whether they really meet all the need or not. But, you know, they clearly are able to do some things in the financial aid sector that - public universities or, you know, other kind of mid-level universities that are trying to keep up with the Ivy League schools of the world can't offer the same benefits, you know? You know, they're trying to keep up in competing for the top students, but they aren't necessarily able to compete in the area of giving financial aid to the lower-income students.

GROSS: Will, I want to ask you about some of the plans that have been offered politically. Like, Senator Bernie Sanders has, you know, proposed forgiving student debt, which is a very controversial stand to take. What makes it so controversial? Like, what would it mean?

BUNCH: Forty-five million people have some college debt. And many of those 45 million have more than 10,000. Some of them have 50,000, 100,000, 150,000. But you're talking about a minority of people. You know, only 37% of Americans have a bachelor's degree. And two things - first of all, not all of those people borrowed to get through college. You know, some people, their families or they worked their way through college, and they came out without debt. And I think more importantly, you know, the 63% who don't have bachelor's degrees feel that, why is paying off the debts incurred by these kids their responsibility?

GROSS: Their responsibility in terms of paying taxes to cover the debt?

BUNCH: Right. That the - you know, I mean, it's a very abstract thing. They basically - the government isn't getting the loan repayments, and so that's hurting the federal budget. So eventually, that would come back and hurt the average taxpayer. You know, in the book, I come out in support of massive debt forgiveness. You know, I think too many people from the last couple of generations were sold a bill of goods, weren't told either what college was going to cost or were misled on what kind of jobs and what kind of careers would emerge for them on the other side to pay them back. A major component of this crisis is these for-profit universities, which used very dubious methods to max out the amount of money that they could loan to each student, knowing that the government guaranteed the money, and saddling these kids with debt for - in many cases, for degrees that aren't really worth a lot in the job market, unfortunately.

GROSS: Well, we need to take another break here, so let me reintroduce you. If you're just joining us, my guest is Will Bunch, author of the new book "After The Ivory Tower Falls: How College Broke The American Dream, Blew Up Our Politics - And How To Fix It" (ph). He's a columnist at the Philadelphia Inquirer. We'll be right back. I am Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF CRAIG DAVIS FEAT. JOHN CLAYTON AND JEFF HAMILTON'S "COMPADOO")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to my interview with Will Bunch, author of the new book "After The Ivory Tower Falls: How College Broke The American Dream And Blew Up Our Politics - And How To Fix It." It's about how we got to the point where instead of college, opening the door to opportunity and a better life, it leaves many students deep in debt, unable to get jobs with salaries big enough to pay off the debt. Bunch also writes about how college admission standards and high tuitions end up leaving many young people feeling excluded, which has contributed to the economic and political divisions of our country. Bunch is a columnist for The Philadelphia Inquirer, focusing on social injustice, income inequality, politics and government.

Tuitions are so high in some schools, it just seems like how can anybody afford to pay like $70,000 a year for tuition and then do that for four years? You can explain how college tuition, you know, got more expensive, but it's really so expensive. Like, how did it get that high? Not - I mean, not every college costs that much, but a lot do.

BUNCH: In the book, I devote a whole chapter to looking at the situation at one college, which is Kenyon College in Ohio. And I picked Kenyon partly for the political environment because it's a very liberal college in the heart of Trump country. But the economics of Kenyon also fascinated me. Their student body, about 20% of the students who go to Kenyon are from the top 1% of earners. And, you know, a majority of the students are from the top 20% of earners. So there is enough high-end demand to try to keep this system going.

And, you know, like I said, high tuition does fund discounts for students who are truly in the, you know, what I might call the upper lower middle class, you know, families making $100,000 a year. They're probably not paying $75,000 a year to go to college. But, you know, they're paying maybe $30,000 or $40,000 a year because of these discounts. And the system has worked, you know, barely, although in the last couple of years, we've seen more and more middle-class folks questioning if college is really worth it at these prices. You know, the - we finally reached the stage where people are starting to think about price more than prestige.

GROSS: So for students who are in over their heads financially in order to go to college and are accruing a lot of debt, what happens in the other parts of their life during college years in terms of being able to afford rent or food?

BUNCH: Yeah. I think one of the major things about college today in the 2020s that the average person who's not in touch with college life doesn't understand is just the high level of problems like food insecurity on campus. You know, so many working-class families, their kids are, you know, going to these public universities trying to stay on the ladder, stay in the middle class. And they're really struggling to make ends meet. And, you know, most major universities nowadays have these large food pantries where students come every week to pick up macaroni and cheese or popcorn or just food to sustain themselves during the week.

In 2021, and obviously, you had the pandemic going on, but there was a major study of 190,000 college students, and more than a third of them were dealing with food insecurity or hunger issues. And rent is a big problem in places like California, where the housing costs are so high. You have hundreds of college students who are living in their cars while attending classes. And, you know, to me, it just kind of shows what kind of a "Hunger Games"-type situation college has become for so many type people of doing what they can to make sure they get that piece of paper that will keep them in the middle class.

GROSS: One of your suggestions in the book is a universal gap year, so that when you graduate high school, you have a year before entering college. And that year could include a year of national service. Could you describe what you have in mind?

BUNCH: Maybe instead of feeling this incredible pressure at age 18 to either pick the right college and figure out what they're going to major in and how to pay for it, in so many of these 18-year-olds who don't go to college at 18 and then suddenly drop off the grid and, you know, fall into these rabbit holes, whether it's YouTube or whether it's, you know, the growing problem of opioid addiction in among among young people without college educations.

I would love to see the government find opportunities for people from these different backgrounds to work together, you know, on environmental projects. You know, I mean, President Biden has proposed something called the Civilian Climate Corps, which is based on the famous Civilian Conservation Corps of FDR's New Deal, where you'd have people from different backgrounds, you know, spending a gap year, you know, working in communities, doing environmental projects like, you know, sweeping the forests that are getting consumed by these by these wildfires - right? - you know, for example, or working on water conservation projects.

You know, I think it would be a chance to help young people find a sense of national purpose. You know, this used to be accomplished through wars, right? You know, you know, World War II or the Korean War, people from Alabama and people from Brooklyn and people from different ethnic backgrounds would fight together and in the same unit. And they develop a better understanding of the country and different people around that. And, you know, now that we don't have a draft and the military isn't a part of people's lives, you know, we don't have something that brings young people together and gives them a sense that maybe we're all on the same team and that we're not on the red team or the blue team.

GROSS: So you think like a year of national service would be helpful?

BUNCH: I do. I don't think, you know - some people have said we should make it mandatory. I don't think you can do that in the current political climate. But I do think, you know, if you made it a phenomenon and kind of an offer that young people couldn't refuse and, you know, got people really excited about the possibilities of what they could do during the gap year, because it gives our young people more time to find themselves and figure out what they want to do. You know, so many people at 18, you know, and their families basically are making bad choices. And that's resulted in things like the student debt crisis. But it's also, you know, it's also resulted in people deciding, you know, that they don't want to further their education, that college is too risky for them or it's too expensive. And, you know, we're losing people in that cohort.

You know, there's been a lot of research that the Princeton University economists Case and Deaton have made a name for themselves writing about deaths of despair among working-class people, which refers to, you know, suicide, drug overdoses, alcohol addiction. And what they found is that people succumbing to these deaths of despair are getting younger and younger. And the No. 1 determining factor is whether or not they have a college degree, you know? Not having a college degree is the No. 1 driver of people being prone to these deaths of despair. And that's just one more reason why we need to put this on the front burner and talk about solutions to this, to the education problem.

GROSS: Well, let me reintroduce you. If you're just joining us, my guest is Will Bunch, author of the new book "After The Ivory Tower Falls." We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF AMY WINEHOUSE SONG, "YOU KNOW I'M NO GOOD")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Will Bunch, author of the new book "After The Ivory Tower Falls: How College Broke The American Dream And Blew Up Our Politics - And How to Fix It."

You say that Republicans are waging a war on higher education. And you offer examples from a couple of states, Wisconsin and North Carolina. Give us an example of what you mean.

BUNCH: Well, Wisconsin is a perfect example, particularly during the tenure of Scott Walker as governor from 2010 to 2018. Some of it was just cutting funding for education. He certainly tried to reduce tenure protections for professors because he saw professors as promoting a liberal ideology. But to me, the most interesting thing was this idea of, what is college really for? And on the right, there's this push that college should be for workforce development and nothing else, you know, the flip side of this whole idea of liberal education and critical thinking. And in the middle of his tenure as governor, there was a huge controversy because he actually pushed to change the language of the University of Wisconsin's mission statement to take out the idea that the goal of the university is the search for truth. He wanted that language removed. He wanted it changed to, the purpose of the university is to develop the state's workforce, period. And, you know, I don't think people were ready for that. There was a huge outcry. And he actually backed down from that.

But what you have seen in states like Wisconsin and North Carolina and several other red states is more and more politically connected people being appointed to the board of university trustees, trying to exert more control over what goes on on-campus, you know, over hiring, you know? In North Carolina, you had this huge controversy over the hiring of Nikole Hannah-Jones, the author of "The 1619 Project," as a journalism professor there. She ended up not coming because of this back-and-forth over whether they were going to offer her tenure. And again, that was the conservative elements on the board of trustees. You know, now in Florida, you know, Ron DeSantis has done the same thing, you know? He has a very conservative board of trustees overseeing the public universities in Florida. They're making changes to tenure. They are changing the way that colleges are accredited to make it more difficult for these universities. And it just reflects an overall hostility on the right to learning and education.

GROSS: We both live in Pennsylvania. And Doug Mastriano, who's a Christian nationalist and very right wing - he supports the lie that Trump actually won the election. Does he have plans to change college and universities if he's elected as governor?

BUNCH: Well, he's very focused. I mean, he wants to radically change K-12 education. But I think cuts in college would almost - in college funding by the state would almost certainly come with that. You know, Mastriano and other Republicans this year tried to drastically cut state support for universities like Temple and the University of Pittsburgh that get state aid. And the reason for this was largely a controversy at Pittsburgh over stem cell research that it does. So you know, you saw this bleeding of the growing issue over reproductive rights and abortion intersecting with the whole issue of college funding. And, you know, it just kind of shows where the far-right movement in this country is headed.

GROSS: You mentioned that Mastriano has plans for K-12. And you wrote a column about that recently in which you wrote that, you know, he'd like to cut state aid to public schools by more than half, with parents able to use those dollars for religious schools or homeschooling. Can you expand on what's behind that?

BUNCH: I think the big reason the right is so obsessed about education comes out of the George Floyd protests from the spring of 2020. I think the size of those protests, the fact that in a lot of kind of small and mid-sized towns and cities in areas that you might normally call Trump country, you had big turnout suddenly for Black Lives Matter marches. And these marches were populated largely by high school students or high school teachers, right? They were a core of this movement. And I think it made people on the right wonder, what is it that our kids are being taught in school that they're embracing this different philosophy about race and this different philosophy about hierarchies in America that wasn't the one that I grew up with?

And so, you know, you've seen this intense focus on, what are kids learning about race? What are kids learning about gender? What are they learning about the LGBTQ community? And, you know, it's interesting because I think it's an evolution, you know? In the 1960s and '70s, conservatives were worried about what kids were doing on college campuses. And now they're starting to think that we need to nip some of these critical thinking ideas in the bud when these kids are in grade school. And, you know, that's become the next battleground.

GROSS: Well, Will Bunch, I want to thank you a lot for talking with us.

BUNCH: Thanks so much for having me, Terry. I really appreciate it.

GROSS: Will Bunch is a columnist for the Philadelphia Inquirer and author of the new book "After The Ivory Tower Falls: How College Broke The American Dream And Blew Up Our Politics - And How To Fix It." After we take a short break, Nick Quah will review two podcasts that take us back to the period of the counterculture. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE BAD PLUS' "THE BEAUTIFUL ONES") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Combine an intelligent interviewer with a roster of guests that, according to the Chicago Tribune, would be prized by any talk-show host, and you're bound to get an interesting conversation. Fresh Air interviews, though, are in a category by themselves, distinguished by the unique approach of host and executive producer Terry Gross. "A remarkable blend of empathy and warmth, genuine curiosity and sharp intelligence," says the San Francisco Chronicle.