AFTER THE IVORY TOWER FALLS: How College Broke the American Dream and Blew Up Our Politics — and How to Fix It, by Will Bunch
Americans owe $1.7 trillion in student loans, an amount so gargantuan that it has lodged in the public consciousness, like the visibility of the Great Wall of China from space, except the debt monument grows higher and longer every year.
“After the Ivory Tower Falls,” by the Philadelphia Inquirer columnist Will Bunch, is the story of how the Great Wall of Loans was built and why it divides us, of how higher education went from a beloved guarantor of opportunity to, in Bunch’s telling, a fracturing force of cultural and economic separation. It is ambitious and engrossing, even when the narrative sometimes strains to fit the demands of Bunch’s argument that college has become “a fake meritocracy rigged to make half of America hate it.”
Bunch’s history tracks the missed opportunities to define and finance college as a public good, beginning with the 1944 G.I. Bill’s unexpected success in sending millions of white veterans to college, free of charge. President Harry S. Truman’s Commission on Higher Education followed up in 1947 with a far-reaching vision of enlightened, productive citizens educated by federally financed colleges and universities.
But like so many good things, the idea was spoiled by racists — in this case, Southern lawmakers who worried that federal programs might require them to educate Black people. While an undergraduate named Mario Savio helped found the Free Speech Movement at Berkeley (after registering Black Mississippi voters during the Freedom Summer of 1964), an aging actor named Ronald Reagan saw an opportunity to ride middle-class revulsion toward campus radicals all the way to the California governor’s mansion. Reagan went on to champion an antitax, small-government philosophy that would erode public education revenues for decades to come.
Bunch applies his skills as a veteran newspaper reporter throughout the book, incorporating the firsthand voices of Savio’s widow, gunshot survivors of the Kent State massacre, and many others, to great effect. But most of his reporting focuses on present-day conflicts that seem to be pulling the nation apart. He talks to liberal college professors shocked into activism by the Trump presidency and to churchgoing, Trump-loving residents of nearby towns who feel alienated by wealthy students and the cultural convulsions they represent.
The prose is tight, direct and often bracing. We meet an idealistic low-income graduate weighed down by six-figure loans and an Obama-to-Trump voter who skipped college for a factory job that paid handsome wages until it suddenly didn’t. Both are treated with fairness and humanity. Bunch describes how the dream of college as a tool for democratic citizenship has “instead become the rough show-us-your-papers demand for clinging to the middle class.”
The final chapters bring past and present together into a single argument: that the “college problem” is underappreciated as a major driver — perhaps the major driver — of the miles-deep chasm dividing Americans by class, culture, geography and ideology. Until very recently, Bunch notes, people with college degrees split their votes about evenly between Democrats and Republicans, as did voters who didn’t attend college. Bill Clinton won the presidency by attracting noncollege voters, and as late as 2012, Barack Obama’s margin among the college-educated was relatively small.
But the Trump years caused, or were provoked by, a wrenching separation of the electorate into opposing camps defined by educational attainment. College-educated Republicans fled the party in droves, while Democrats without degrees ran in the opposite direction. The result was two tribes who disagreed not just about values and ideals but also about basic tenets of science and fact.
A self-described progressive, Bunch acknowledges but does not dwell overmuch on campus debates around race and gender that are sometimes described as “identity politics.” His core focus is on the transformation of public universities into institutions that seem deliberately designed to exclude voters who have left the Democratic fold. The decades of lost chances to organize and fund college as a public good exacted a cost, denominated in tuition prices and financed by student loans.
While universities always publicly denounce funding cuts, many were not-so-secretly glad for the excuse to become more exclusive, expensive and focused on the wants of the wealthy. That’s how excellence has always been defined in American higher education. Just as tectonic economic shifts left tens of millions of workers needing new training and credentials, the public university system was becoming less affordable and more beholden to “meritocratic” ideas that thinly disguised the interests of the ruling class. Meanwhile, even students who might have been inclined by background and politics to embrace higher learning became disillusioned by the spiraling crisis of debt.
This is all true, and important. But it starts to creak as a totalizing explanation for the alarming state of the body politic. Bunch devotes a long chapter to a four-part taxonomy of American discontent, defined by the axes of age and college attainment. One example is Dave Mitchko, a Scranton-area man in his 50s without a degree, made briefly famous for distributing thousands of Trump 2020 signs from his home garage.
Maybe Mitchko truly believes he signed a social contract “that you didn’t need a fancy college education to have a nice life in the United States — only to see it get ripped up” right in front of him. That deal didn’t last long, historically speaking, and was only ever offered to people with names like Dave and Mitchko. And it was broken because the plant he used to work in manufactured vinyl records and compact discs. Technological change is a fact of life, and colleges weren’t responsible for de-unionization or the trade policies that exposed workers to competition from foreign labor — or for Mitchko’s belief that George Floyd was resisting arrest.
Bunch is careful to acknowledge all of this. But at some point, fair-minded caveats start to feel like counterarguments. Colleges have been as much the venue for political division as they have been its root cause.
At times, Bunch overgeneralizes from the experiences of public universities in his home state of Pennsylvania, which have been underfunded to an unusual degree. Nationwide, state funding for college has not declined drastically, in part because neighboring states like New York and Maryland have done substantially better. His story of a student loan crisis driven in part by nefarious Wall Street financial engineers elides the fact that the loan system was almost entirely deprivatized in 2010. The large majority of that $1.7 trillion was lent directly by the federal government at subsidized rates.
“After the Ivory Tower Falls” concludes with a thoughtful, nuanced discussion of the practical and political challenges faced by lawmakers trying to turn the higher education system back toward public purpose. It also advocates for a form of highly encouraged national service as a means of recreating the post-World War II spirit of national unity, without the war. The elder members of our warring political tribes may be too far apart, but Bunch has hope yet for younger generations working together on behalf of their communities, rather than struggling alone through a college system filled with financial traps at every turn.
Kevin Carey directs the education policy program at New America.
AFTER THE IVORY TOWER FALLS: How College Broke the American Dream and Blew Up Our Politics — and How to Fix It, by Will Bunch | 310 pp. | William Morrow | $28.99