John N. Gardner Institute for Excellence in Undergraduate Education

Here a College, There a College, Everywhere a College

My readers know that when I travel abroad it naturally encourages me to see my own country, and profession (higher education) through different lens. As I write this reflection, I have been under the influence of driving around the south of France, for a week, with my wife, Betsy Barefoot, who does all the driving and thus gives me even more opportunity to take in visually my new surroundings. And what I don’t see here is what I see everywhere in the US: post secondary institutions.

In the States, almost everywhere you drive, even less populated areas, you see evidences of the huge post secondary industry in America, for our 20 million plus regular constituents (note I chose not to call them “customers”, a concept I still find anathema).

We see billboards and other forms of signage, directing us to such and such a college or university. Some of them we have heard of, others we have not. Often times, separate institutions will be right across the street from each other. In some cases that was because they may have originally been founded as single sex, private, institutions and their co-location facilitated socializing of students from the same social classes, one of the original purposes of college in America.

When we read newspapers, listen to the car radio, watch television, or, of course, surf, we are inundated with advertisements for colleges and universities, usually not the elite ones, and almost always, the hungry ones.

But not in France. We have been driving now for seven days, in both the countryside and more urban areas, and haven’t seen one, literally. And not one billboard advertising one either. But a quick check on the internet tells me that in this country of more than 60 million people there are at least 90 public universities and 170 professional schools, in addition to many more vocational schools. But I haven’t seen one of them.

This all strikes me as somewhat paradoxical. In America where we are constantly reminded of both the need for and accessibility of higher education, as a route for upward social mobility, there are nevertheless much greater degrees of inequality as measured by such indicators as degree attainment and per capita income, than here in France where higher education is not visible at all to this naked eye. I am struck with the paradox: the ubiquity of higher education in my own country, including in the literal, visual sense, but with ever rising levels of inequality. I recall that just a few weeks ago one of the former Republican presidential candidates told an audience that if elected he would do everything within his power to maintain inequality of attainment.

And there are other things I don’t see in France but I know are here to differentiate from my own country: universal health care, greater life expectancy, the 35 hour work week, retirement age pegged to government pensions at 62, and paid vacation durations that American workers have never had and never will.

I am glad though that US higher education is so omnipresent. I would certainly never want that to be any different. It is part of our transparency of trying to create opportunity. I just want to see us get better at the attainment of that opportunity.

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