I grew up in a small-ish town in Missouri. Thanks to my parents, higher education was always my goal. I wanted to graduate from college and then probably graduate from grad school. Starting in middle school, I knew I wanted to go to law school. Well, that time has come. I’m currently writing this 20 days before I begin my 1L year, and I can’t help but reflect on my higher education journey. In addition, I’ll reflect on the massive higher-education shifts occurring right now.

In high school, I wanted to go to some elite private college, preferably an Ivy. This aspiration unfortunately ran headfirst into my untreated ADHD. School came easy to me, but as higher-level classes started challenging me, I didn’t know how to adapt. So, my grades fell a little bit, and that Ivy dream fully faded away by my junior year. My ACT scores would help buoy my less-than-stellar GPA, but they weren’t enough. My senior year, I only applied to two schools: Yale and Mizzou. I applied to Yale through their binding early decision program and was declined admission in the first round (not even waitlisted). I knew this was the most likely outcome, so I wasn’t too bummed about it; I was already planning to attend Mizzou.

I matriculated to Mizzou as a journalism student, but I changed course after we were sent home due to the COVID pandemic. I ended up graduating with a degree in religious studies, influenced by a couple of classes I took freshman year. The religious studies department at Mizzou has great faculty, but administration takes little interest in it. My freshman year, the department had to shut down its Masters program. Then, at the beginning of my junior year, religious studies got merged into a larger “Classics” department as part of Mizzou shifting its focus to STEM fields, aka, the moneymakers.

In a state like Missouri, where a holistic liberal arts education isn’t valued but job placement is, universities justify their existence based on the money they make for the state. This leads to universities in the state shifting their focus so as not to compromise their funding. The political appointees who run the system and the legislators who set the budget constrain the mission of higher education to educate the populace. Sometimes there’s more to learning than future job placement, but those more abstract values don’t matter to people who only care about outcomes.

In the present day, this conflict over the goal of higher education is coming to a head. The cost of higher education (and the associated student loans) along with emerging technologies like AI doesn’t bode well for the future of holistic liberal arts education. I hope this doomer take is wrong because I think one of the shining stars of the US is its system of higher education. While it costs more to attend college here than in any other industrialized nation, we also have some of the best universities. My bigger (and perhaps more grounded) worry is that private elite colleges will continue to be a bastion of liberal arts education, while state schools (especially those in red states) move towards becoming job-placement programs. The result is an “elitification” of education. This will also coincide with a large drop in the diversity of campuses due to the end of affirmative action.

To be fair, I may just be a doomer. It’s not like the universities in blue states are going to follow the path of universities in red states. In addition, I’m optimistic about the 2024 election for Democrats, and that could bode well for higher education reform (especially since that’s a concern of millennials and gen-z, which now compromises the nation’s largest voting bloc). But this optimism also reveals one of the big problems with our system of governance here in the U.S.: our institutions are held up by the beliefs of the (voting) majority that they matter. Our investment in the public good is dependent on having people in office who want to continue that investment. In the past few years, we’ve been reminded of this: Roe v. Wade and affirmative action were both buried by a Supreme Court molded by a man who doesn’t give one singular shit about public institutions. For every bit of optimism about the future election, there’s also the grim reality that the Supreme Court can crush anything good that comes from it.

The state of higher education in the U.S. is in flux, and I’m hoping that eventually the system will prevail. That’s a hope though, and not a guarantee (even if we do vote in the right people). God bless the USA.