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How College Broke the American Dream – Will Bunch

How College Broke the American Dream – Will Bunch

Real Talk: The Charles Mizrahi Show podcast

How College Broke the American Dream – Will Bunch

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Is a college education still valuable today? The answer isn’t so clear anymore. That’s why award-winning journalist and author Will Bunch set out to examine the current state of college education. In his newest book, Bunch questions if degrees are still worth paying thousands of dollars for. And in this episode, host Charles Mizrahi sits down with Bunch to tackle one big question: What is college even for?

Topics Discussed:

  • An Introduction to Will Bunch (00:00:00)
  • An Eventful Presidency (00:10:48)
  • From Lowest to Greatness (00:17:19)
  • A New Take (00:21:53)
  • Devoted Family Man (00:30:26)
  • Across the Isles (00:31:46)

Guest Bio:

Will Bunch is a Pulitzer-Prize-winning journalist and author. Currently, he’s a national opinion columnist for the Philadelphia Inquirer, where he tackles topics surrounding social injustice, income inequality, and the U.S. government. Bunch has also written several books. And his latest book (below) examines the transformation of college education and how it’s impacting both older and younger generations.

Resources Mentioned:

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Read Transcript

WILL BUNCH: All of the sudden, when you didn’t have the lifestyle of college — the fraternities, parties, football games, social activities — when it was just all of the sudden reduced to class, people start asking: “What is college worth?”

CHARLES MIZRAHI: My guest today is Will Bunch. Will is a Pulitzer-Prize-winning journalist. He is the national opinion columnist for the Philadelphia Inquirer and the author of several books. His latest book is After the Ivory Tower Falls: How College Broke the American Dream and Blew Up Our Politics―and How to Fix It. I recently sat down with Will and we tackle the big question of what and who is college even for.

CHARLES MIZRAHI: Will thanks so much for coming on the show. I greatly appreciate it. I was looking forward to it since we spoke sometime last week. And thanks once again.

WILL BUNCH: Charles. Thanks so much for having me. It’s a real pleasure to be with you.

CHARLES MIZRAHI: Okay. The name of the book, folks, is After the Ivory Tower Falls: How College Broke the American Dream and Blew Up Our Politics―and How to Fix It. So will you ask the hard questions? And I want to dove right into this because I have five of my kids and they all went to college and my last one just graduated. And I was listening in. I was more active than I was because it was over zoom during COVID and forgot about just how what was taught and the things were taught and what was said. I didn’t want to really agree with my son that he didn’t need college. And after hearing a lot of what I was hearing and just going through the process, I was really bamboozled.

WILL BUNCH: There’s a huge debate going on in this country that we haven’t had for a long time. And that debate is what is college really for? You know why? Why do we go to college? What do we actually learn there? How important is it to get a job? How important is it to judge your status in society? Because that’s a big factor, especially now the political piece I found that people some people feel they’re looked down upon because they don’t have a college diploma or that they feel that they will be looked down on if they don’t go ahead and get that diploma, whether they want to sit in a class for four years or not. And, you know, I grew up. I don’t know when you grew up, Charles. When I grew up in the sixties and seventies. And college was the American dream. And that was pretty much unquestioned that if you wanted to have a better life, you had to go to college. And that was drilled into people. And when the cost of college started rising exorbitantly and when tuition started going off the charts, when people started having to take out these gigantic loans in order to pay for people’s thought, people still didn’t question that because it was the dream and because now, now employers were really demanding that the former to get a job. And so that’s kind of created this created a lot of the problems we have today, including, I guess, some of the problems you picked up on as a parent.

CHARLES MIZRAHI: You know, I want to tell you, I know some of my friends, they signed loans for their kids for hundreds of thousands of dollars. That took no more than a few minutes. One of my friends said I signed a $150,000 loan quicker than I’ve ever done anything else. And it was the easiest thing in the world. And now my son is straddled with $150,000 of college debt and he happened to be a doctor. The kid was going to be a doctor and his doctor now and I don’t know, he worked out something with his employer where they’re going to pay part of it. But, my gosh, if you’re majoring in social work or some profession that there is no way in hell you’re ever going to make that money back. How do you get out from under that?

WILL BUNCH: Yeah. The thing is. If you’re a middle-class family in America, having that to have a college diploma and having your kid go to college says something about who you are, about your moral values and about your work. And that’s just drilled into families. And, you know, your doctor friend, for example, I’m sure he didn’t really feel there were any other options. You know, it’s like you have to go to college because what’s the alternative? The alternative is that people will think he’s a failure. He may not do well in the job market. So I’m going to have to take this gamble. Right? I’m going to have to gamble $150,000 and just hope that when it comes out on the other side, he gets a job that can easily pay that back without too much resentment.

CHARLES MIZRAHI: Well, will he? I’m going to go. He became a doctor. The kid was going to medical school. So that was a good risk reward ratio. You know, he would have the earning capacity in order to pay this off. But if you’re going to be a master’s of social work or a liberal arts international liberal arts, which I recently hired someone who spent a zillion dollars at NYU to become I don’t know what the hell an international liberal arts major is, but whatever it was. Well, NYU got 60, $70,000 over four years in terms of tuition as well as, you know, room and board. But some of these professions of history, philosophy…

WILL BUNCH: Isn’t it? I think to me, a big worry, though, is what about the professions that don’t pay as much as a doctor but yet are important to society? I mean, the one that jumps to mind particularly is a teacher, right? I mean, we have a huge shortage of teachers in this country right now. We can’t train enough of them. But how about and how are we going to convince people to get the kind of education that we know that they need to be well educated, be okay.

CHARLES MIZRAHI: You don’t need to spend $70,000 in an Ivy League school. You could easily spend 5 to 7000 on a state school. So tell me what the difference is.

WILL BUNCH: That’s absolutely you know, public education has always been kind of the bedrock of the system. We, you know, generally focus so much on the you know, and some of it’s the media. You know, a lot of people who work at The New York Times and The Washington Post went to Harvard or Yale, and they end up writing stories about what’s happening at Harvard or Yale to show what’s going on in college. But the reality is, you know, the greatest I mean, the biggest number of people in higher education courses in community college, two, your schools and above that is our state universities like the you’re in Pennsylvania where I live. We have 14 university system schools like Kutztown State. Westchester. Yeah, absolutely. If you want to be a teacher, I would highly recommend going to those schools. I think we need to, um, we need to invest more in these schools so that they do a better job.

CHARLES MIZRAHI: Well, I would beg to differ. I don’t think we need to invest anything more with these schools, because I think these schools have gotten to the point. And, you know, it’s better to speak in broad strokes. So let’s be more specific. Liberal arts schools in the middle of Oshkosh that do not have the brand appeal. Let’s be real. Brand is important. If you give a resume that says you went to Harvard or you give one that went to Westchester, it’s going to be looked at differently. That’s just the way life is. All right. So you’re paying for the brand. All right. I’ll grant you that. But the amount of money, the increase over the past 20 or so years has not been inflation increases. It has been going up leaps and bounds where the only way to go to college was to take loans, get scholarships, and go through courses that may or may not be important for your profession. But at the end, to hold up that B.A. or B.S. and be saddled with enormous amounts of debt, in what world did that make sense?

WILL BUNCH: It’s a complicated system. We do have some that we do have in small little schools out in Wisconsin that offer liberal majors. I would say, though, that that’s a very small percentage of the system. You know, the biggest percentage of the system is state universities or even our flagship colleges. You know, Penn State workers, you know, University of Massachusetts, University of Vermont, you know, school schools, the schools that your listeners are well with. Absolutely. Those schools have become very expensive there. If you live in state, you might even win Pell Grants or scholarships or whatever deducted. You still might have a cost of attending in your college 15, $20,000 per year for a public university in your state when you were found. What’s happened, though, is, you know, we talk about investment. I think investment matters in some of the state legislatures over the last 40 years, and particularly the last 14 years since the Great Recession of 228 have dramatically cut taxpayer spending on schools, and they expect the difference to be made up with tuition. And it is, you know, the biggest tuition of a school like the University of Vermont gets is not from somebody who lives in Beaumont, but somebody from New York or, you know, somebody in Jersey who wants to go to a party school in the city. Right. And so they convince their family to pay the whole out-of-state tuition, which at a school like that could be 50, $50,000 a year. And part of the problem is these schools. Start getting really preference to these out of state kids who are even really there to study necessarily. Some of them aren’t and some of them are there for status and prestige. They have a good time. And then something else that I’ve been I’m sure you’re familiar with is a number of these schools really went nuts starting in 2000 in terms of trying to attract international students, especially from China, then you have this huge pool of students from China in particular who were willing to pay full freight to send their kids to the United States. You know, some of them do very well. And obviously, some of them aren’t quite ready. They don’t have the they don’t have the full English schools. But one of the reasons I wrote this book, as I said, is some of these things that are happening to make the system work, like those things that are crazy. So how do you know, how do we, how do we, how do we look at this in a new way? How do we look, maybe start from scratch on some level and start all over again? Rethink what college is, who it’s for, what we’re going to do with the people who maybe shouldn’t go to a four-year college. What’s going to happen to them? But these are things I try to explore in my book.

CHARLES MIZRAHI: Okay. So what I saw. And it’s not only me. This is as many parents saw in 2020 during COVID. What a sham. And I’m using that word strongly. What a sham. A lot of college education was what was being charged to parents and what the students were getting ready. College they didn’t want to even discount for their Zoom classes. They wanted full payment, though the kids were not getting the so-called college experience, which means basically, you know, drinking, partying and doing all that kind of crap. And parents were sitting around like I was listening to one of my son’s business classes and just laughing that the teacher, the professor, had no idea of what made the real business world work. And I just thought, my gosh, you know, the emperor’s wearing no clothes. And it’s not only me. I’m just going to read you a stat here. And this is before COVID. In 2019, 51% of American adults considered a college degree to be very important. That’s down from 70% in 2013 to Gallup polls. Positive views of college among those 18 to 29 fell to 41%. So Americans now are not viewing college as very important prior to COVID. And positive views of college now for the marketplace which is 18 to 29 fell to 41%. Why did that happen?

WILL BUNCH: It’s really shocking. You know, we go back a few years and when all these other institutions like Congress or, you know, the media, you know, had these low approval ratings with the public 20, 25% college or college always contain this high approval rating. And that kind of gets back to what I was saying earlier about college for such a long time as the American Dream and just the badge of a college diploma against the parents. And your kids are in a good college that means so much to them and the people who are willing to pay any price and also maybe not question the system. And I think you’re right. I think, you know, I think COVID was like ripping a Band-Aid off a big scar, right? We’re exposed a lot. You know, like you said, I mean, schools, for the most part, didn’t offer discounts. All of the sudden, when you didn’t have the lifestyle of college — the fraternities, parties, football games, social activities — when it was just all of the sudden reduced to class, people start asking: “What is college worth?” And I mean, to me that just shows that maybe we’ve been putting too much emphasis on those social things.

CHARLES MIZRAHI: Or we were being sold a bill of goods by an educational system which told naive parents that for their kids to get anywhere, they need a college degree.

WILL BUNCH: One thing that really sort of one thing that really took root around the around the eighties and nineties and it’s just gotten more extreme over the last 20 years is the prestige marketing of colleges where colleges are colleges are marketing themselves to kids and to some extent to their parents, not on the professors, not on the particular academic programs that sometimes the last thing comes out. But instead, there’s this race to put in rock climbing walls. Some of the universities have these lazy rivers where kids can float on a raft and float around campus. So many campuses have enforcement options for these kids, a flat screen TV. And, you know, a lot of people talk about college becoming kind of this implicit bargain, right, where, you know, for a lot of kids looking ahead to their careers, the big thing is what happens when they’re a high school senior at age 18 is where do they get in? Because if they get into a big name school like Harvard or like Dartmouth or somewhere like that, then they know that they just have to graduate and get that diploma. And they’re pretty much set for life in the job market. And, you know, a lot of these schools, for one reason or another, don’t, don’t demand a lot of students. They don’t, they don’t offer, they don’t offer coursework. That’s difficult. But that students are going to be flunking out for academic reasons to drop out for financial reasons all the time because of the past. That’s not that many kids are going to be found out for academic grooming.

CHARLES MIZRAHI: Let me let me let me hold you one sec. Want to give you another state or I know what to respond to this one as well. So basically, you’re agreeing with me that college basically set up a fantastic front to get unsuspecting donations, hands inspecting, to get kids to go to their schools. That had really very little to do with academics in some cases. But as long as they put asses in the seats at 30, $40,000, it was a happy day for everybody, right? The kid was getting a degree, mom and pop kid to say, my kid graduated university of blah blah and the college got paid X number of tens of thousands of dollars, even though they might have an endowment to give this kid a degree, and in your words, they might not even earned it.

WILL BUNCH: Yeah, I mean, the system is definitely off track. The question, though, is, what do we want to replace that.

CHARLES MIZRAHI: Hang on with replacing it. Let’s keep building the case. Let’s keep building the case. Well, because I guarantee a lot of my listeners are saying you’re washed up, Charles. College is the American dream. It’s the ticket to prosperity. Well, I’ll show you a lot of people having a lot of problems because of this.

WILL BUNCH: I don’t know, Charles. I think any parent who is trying to save money for their kid or who’s trying to pay off some of these loans is asking questions.

CHARLES MIZRAHI: Finally! Let me read you this stat. This is from 19.6 million students enrolled in spring of 2011. That’s 19.6 — more than a decade ago. By 2019, that number fell to 17.5, so 2 million less enrolled in school eight years later. The pandemic sped the decline. The number is now down to 16.2 by this spring, according to the National Student Clearinghouse. So we had 19.6. We’re down to 16.2. So the marketplace ain’t that stupid. They’re getting the drift of this cost — Adam Smith’s invisible hand in capitalist society. You’re figuring out that you’re not getting the bang for the buck. Because if it was, these numbers should be inverted. It shouldn’t be declining.

WILL BUNCH: Yeah. Those numbers are real. There is absolutely a sea change in attitude that’s taking place out there. And, you know, everybody knew that enrollment was going to drop somewhat during the pandemic. And now the pandemic, you know, it’s not over. But in many people’s minds, people are acting as if the pandemic is over. And you would have expected enrollment to bounce back. But enrollment is down again this fall. And it’s not because of COVID. It’s because people are asking that basic question: Is a four-year degree worth it for my kids?

CHARLES MIZRAHI: Let me throw something else that year. Let me throw one more thing at you, and I’m going to give you the stage. Meanwhile, while all this is happening, companies including Alphabet Inc’s Google and Coursera, as well as coding bootcamps, have eroded college’s near-monopoly on postsecondary education. Offering inexpensive online courses that are closely aligned with the labor market. Comment.

WILL BUNCH: But some say there’s something about the necessity for a college degree that changed a lot over the last 40 or 50 years. And people I think are finally just starting to understand that there’s a highfalutin word called credentialism, which is, you know, the importance that’s placed on that on the paper degree. The college diploma is your credential to get through life. And when you think about it, I mean, the jobs in our job market are so different and so varied. Why would we necessarily need the same amount of time for years to learn, which is the job with the people who’ve looked at those credentials? And what are these jobs like? For example, funeral home directors, an example. Why would you need a college degree necessarily to be a funeral director? I’ll give you another one. David University, newspaper reporter, you probably know this, but 60 or 60 years ago, maybe 40, 50% of people working in journalism and reporters didn’t have a college degree. They’d been copy boys and they worked their way up. And then they learned the trade through doing that. Nowadays, there’s no way you would get your foot in the door of a newsroom without a college degree. And so, given the cost of college, given the fact that people in their twenties have these debts now 50, 70, $500,000, they’re not they’re not buying homes. They’re not even getting married in some cases because they feel like they do that with this debt burden around their necks. So it makes sense that for people like Google or Alphabet and like Apple, IBM is another big leader in this field where let’s go through all of our job openings. You know, some of them need a four-year college degree, like a mechanical engineer or something like that. But some of these other jobs don’t, you know, especially in the high-tech society, there’s a lot of coding I.T. type jobs that obviously require knowledge and skill, but not a four-year bachelor’s degree.

CHARLES MIZRAHI: I heard on one YouTube video I was watching, I forgot the exact name, I forgot the exact person. But something to the extent of he was the head of a department at one of the big colleges. I forgot which one is in coding and, you know, computer science. And he said that if I was starting a company, I wouldn’t hire a kid from college with a coding degree with computer science. I’d hire someone who’s been coding since they’re ten years old and don’t have a degree. And this was the head of the department saying that. And I thought, I don’t want to mention the college name because I might be wrong, but I found that astounding.

WILL BUNCH: Yeah. That is fascinating. And, you know, it’s hard, it’s hard work to find a dude like that and recruit them. Which is why. Which is why a lot of companies fall back on these credentials like diplomas, because, you know, job recruiting is hard work. And just asking somebody where they went to college is a lot easier. Right. So yeah, I think I think we finally I think, you know, and maybe it was the pandemic, but I think we finally reached a tipping point where people are asking these questions about, you know, is college right for me? And I think we need to change our ways of thinking about a lot of things, including, you know, is American society going to be a meritocracy where the determination of who has merit and who doesn’t is whether they have a college diploma?

CHARLES MIZRAHI: Well, it’s been that way for the past 60 years or so. Right.

WILL BUNCH: Yeah. And I know we talked about this in the interview about not going off into politics. I mean, I’m not going to do it now. But I will make one point about politics when you look at the politics of resentment out there, people particularly in the working class, we’re very angry about what’s going on in this country, who are angry at certain types of professionals and managers like people in the media. People don’t like college professors. And these are the people I think overwhelmingly voted for Donald Trump in 2016 and again in 2020. These are, for the most part, people without college diplomas and people who feel that they’re being looked down on. No, no, no.

CHARLES MIZRAHI: Let me stop you: Looked down on — being treated hostilely. CUNY, the City University of New York. Where my kids went to. And we’re Jewish and very pro-Israel. CUNY has turned into a hotbed of anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism. And there’s no difference between the two. But they’re using that guise. And my kids were telling me when they were on college campus, they went to Brooklyn College, they kept their heads down and kept walking. When the Palestinians would be taunting and yelling and screaming and going in their class and saying anti-Semitic and anti-anything, family values, morals to that extent. I said, What is your response? We didn’t bother because we’d be yelled at by the professor as well as the other students. So they stayed silent. So college, in a way, became a very hostile place for many people, especially a lot of Jewish people, as well as those who were conservative. So I wouldn’t say just Donald Trump or to that extent, but conservative and family values were being looked upon by this wokeism and this leftism that college universities have just basically grown like weeds.

WILL BUNCH: Here’s my take on that, which is that diversity in college is so important. And the ability for any type of person, you know, Jewish, Muslim, rich, poor, conservative, liberal, that the ability for any type of person to I want your campus to feel welcome, to feel that that they can get something out of that experience that they can learn is just so important. And I feel that that’s why I think we need to be talking more about access to college. Because to me, you know, I follow this free speech debate, you know, and I read these op eds in the New York Times about wokeism. And I think. You know, sometimes the individual cases they’re writing about, they have a point. But I think there’s a broader issue here, which is we really need to make college a place where anybody who wants that opportunity can have it. When we don’t have people who feel the colleges and for them — that they’re not shut out. You know, these places in the Rust Belt or these rural areas where you have lots of Trump supporters, you also have low rates of people going to college. And we need to figure out how to get back to where people feel welcome in college, you know.

CHARLES MIZRAHI: Zero. But you keep saying the Rust Belt in here.

WILL BUNCH: Judy, let me just say thank you. I just want to mention, because you mentioned CUNY and CUNY is just a fascinating case study over time, because as you well know, you know, back around the time when CUNY didn’t have tuition. It was free for everybody. And it was also held up as a role model. New York City in particular was just this kind of rocket, this like slingshot at the launched people from the lower middle class of the working class into a better life. You’re from Brooklyn.

CHARLES MIZRAHI: CUNY, a city university. City University was considered back in the forties and fifties as the poor man’s Harvard. There were, I think, eight or ten Nobel Prize winners from there.

WILL BUNCH: Yeah. One thing I mentioned in my book is you go back to the 1950s and you look at you look at Central Berkeley and you look at just the names of the famous people who went to four or five high schools that are all adjacent of each other in James Madison and Midwood and all these high schools, Tom Woody Allen and Barbra Streisand, Carole King, Chuck Schumer, Bernie Sanders, none of them. You know, like you said, many, many Nobel Prize winners, you know, scientists, they came from the public schools in Brooklyn. And many of them went to City Years in New York or other schools, either for free or, you know, tuition was maybe $300 a semester. And so cost isn’t the only factor, obviously. But we need to multitask. We need to look at exclusivity because, you know, I think if you deal with the cost factor or the admissions office making people feel that colleges aren’t for them, you’ll get a more diverse student body, which if you have a more diverse student body.

CHARLES MIZRAHI: We’re reaching. You’re telling me the problem? The problem here is diversity, that there’s not enough which group is not diversified enough in the college.

WILL BUNCH: About all diversity. So, you know, I’m talking about kids. I’m talking about my own kids. But I’m also talking about kids in Montana. Okay.

CHARLES MIZRAHI: So well, let me ask your question. Let me ask you a question in conservative Brooklyn. Where most of the Jewish people who go to CUNY colleges in the five boroughs are in a situation here where they’re more conservative than let’s say woke. Let’s just say that. I don’t know. Why are they being shouted down? Why when conservative speakers come to colleges, they need police escorts? Why when Ben Shapiro goes to a college and just wants to speak it’s not free speech for them. Why is it overly liberal leftist doctrines that are preached where at the same time, with this cry of free speech, at the same time, conservative values are not shunned upon, but treated aggressively. Why is that?

WILL BUNCH: I mean, there’s no doubt our colleges have become a battleground. And I think we don’t dig deep enough to see, you know, the roots of how college stopped being the American dream for all people. Cause I think is at the roots of a lot of our political bitterness and resentment. So. So I think it’s wrong when a conservative speaker is shouted down and not allowed to speak. I’ve written about that at Berkeley. I’ve written about the protests at the University of Missouri. And we had this horrible scene where a journalism professor, her name is Clay, I just don’t remember. Professor Clay told other journalists that the protest was a safe space that they couldn’t cover. I want to be a big believer in the First Amendment, which is freedom of the press, but it’s also free speech. I’m very concerned. And I’m sure I’m sure to the extent you’ve followed this, I’m sure you’re concerned, too, about the other side of the coin, which is these governments in some of these red states like Florida, have kind of gone back to king of the McCarthy style restrictions on what people can say on campus.

CHARLES MIZRAHI: But you think you think that’s the main problem at this point is in states like Florida and not for the past 20 to 30 years, the leftist doctrine that’s being preached and the anything of family values, conservative values, certain minorities that, you know, genders, that’s not the issue?

WILL BUNCH: I think I think I think we won. I think the bottom line is we want campuses that are open where people feel free.

CHARLES MIZRAHI: To agree with you. And we’re both on the same page here. I’m just seeing the present situation now. You’re basically I don’t know if you’re saying this, and that’s why I’m asking for clarification. Is it the states like Florida, which you’re saying is turning into McCarthyism and I’ll challenge on that point a minute, or is the basic problem of many of the issues that you just raised and the colleges you covered, like Berkeley and Missouri, where any type of speech other than approved speech by leftist and liberals is not tolerated? Which do you think is the bigger problem?

WILL BUNCH: I think honestly, we obsess a little bit too much on these individual flare ups and flaps. And we’re not looking at the big picture. It doesn’t matter whether college has speakers if you can’t afford to go there.

CHARLES MIZRAHI: So, hey, hang on a second. So let me let me take back the anti-Semitism that is a breeding ground in college universities. And I’m just using CUNY just as an example.

WILL BUNCH: I mean, when are you going to frame it that way? Any anti-Semitism is abhorrent.

CHARLES MIZRAHI: Any Anti-Semitism is what?

WILL BUNCH: Of course it’s not even it’s not even a matter for debate.

CHARLES MIZRAHI: So I’m looking here and this is in New York. This is in New York City. CUNY leadership looks the other way. BDS movements. An adjunct professor at CUNY called to erase this filth called Jews. The school’s faculty union adopted a harshly and ignorantly worded anti-Israel resolution. Just a few weeks ago, an anti-Semite was CUNY’s law school’s commencement speaker. Anti-Semitism on all fronts was very difficult, an atrocious time to clean out CUNY. And this is in CUNY. This isn’t a Jewish, Jewish New York with a large Jewish population where college kids throughout this country and certain universities. So I do not feel comfortable being a Jew in these places. So it’s because certain people can’t afford to go to college? Is that the issue?

WILL BUNCH: That’s one issue. Another thing that I talk about a lot in the book is, and again, this is getting back to the fundamental question of what college is for. But, you know, is college strictly just to get a job and prepare for a career? Or is it to learn civic values? Is it to learn moral values, which is, I think, ties into what you’re asking about, about the moral values that students hold. I mean, honestly, this is something that probably starts before college because, as you know, when we start teaching civics and other things in our middle schools and high schools that focus strictly on people passing tests, we need to get back to civics education. But, you know, in my book and what I’m trying to do in this book is I’m trying to look at the long sweep of the history of tolerance since World War II and look at where we were and how we got there. And that’s why I’m taking a step back for a second from the present. I want to step back to right after World War Two, because we were two wars when we had the rise of fascism around the world, when you had and when many felt threatened by how many were coming in and other countries. We just had a world war and people were worried about the nuclear bomb and what that was going to be. And a lot of educators felt that giving people more access to higher education was a way to make the world a better place. And, you know, students got into those. There were surveys of college freshmen over the years. And UCLA does this great survey every year of why people go to college. If you go back to, say, the 1960s, for example, people said the main reason they were going to college was to become a better person. And 20 years later, by the late eighties, 70 to 80% of students were saying they’re going to college to learn how to get a job. And one of the questions I asked in my book After the Ivory Tower Falls is. Did we make a mistake in getting away from those ideas after World War Two? And ideas that education can be made to make a person a better person? And this is an issue that’s being debated on the left, but also on the right. My peculiarity with the book is how we know in the 1980s, you know, about the problems on campus. He is complaining about the lack of moral education. Now. He’s coming from a conservative point of view. And, you know, we have more campuses. We would be having a good, healthy debate about what is more on what’s right. But it should be a debate and it shouldn’t be people being shouted down, which I think gets to your point in a certain way. It shouldn’t be people being shouted down because of who they are, because of their identity, because of their religion or ethnicity or anything like that. But I do think radical change — the word radical means going back to the roots. I’m arguing let’s go back to the roots of why we even go to college. If you go back to World War II, only 5% of the country had a college diploma, a four-year bachelor’s degree. So now the number is 37% and another 30% try to go to college and try and get a degree and don’t make it because they can’t afford it or they drop out or other things happen in life. And if we’re going to send millions of our kids away for two years, three years, four years, what are they there to learn?

CHARLES MIZRAHI: But we’re not doing that anymore. The trend is the other way. We’re not sending our kids there. We dropped, what, 30% in the past several years from 19 to 16 million?

WILL BUNCH: And I don’t think that the drop is that high. I mean, you’re right. I mean, that you’re writing in the sense that the numbers are starting to turn around. And it’s kind of one where I published this book when I did. Because I’ve been thinking about these ideas for a long time. I think honestly, by reading this book, when I started thinking about college and how it affected people’s politics and how that affects people’s social status and how it affected people’s lives of other Americans’ lives. But if I’d written this book 15 years ago, I don’t think people would be ready for it. But now, now, like you said, your friends and yourself are asking the question, was college worth it? No, I mean I mean, you did it. He sent your five kids to college. I sent my wife to go to college. Now we did it. I think our generation, the baby boomers, we grew up with. That was just the expectation. And what I would argue in the book is that we kind of lose our young people at age 18. One thing that we haven’t talked a lot about in this interview, but it’s so important, is what does society owe to the one third of these kids who are never going to set foot on a traditional college campus?

CHARLES MIZRAHI: Trade schools. First of all, don’t do it, we don’t owe them anything. America is built on opportunity and freedom. You don’t need college. You don’t need that for the opportunity to be there.

WILL BUNCH: I would look at it this way. It’s interesting how in American society we come to a consensus on some ideas and not other ideas. Think for a second about K-12 education. Most people at this point don’t seriously question whether public education is a public good.

CHARLES MIZRAHI: Many people do.

WILL BUNCH: I’m sorry. I was going to say on the far right, more and more people are questioning this. And maybe that’s not a perfect example. But I would still say this. I would say the vast majority of Americans believe that K-12 is a public good.

CHARLES MIZRAHI: Okay, maybe. But we also.

WILL BUNCH: The reason for that. I’m not going too long on this. And just let me say quickly. The reason I think it’s a public good is because if you go back to the Industrial Revolution, you needed that education through high school to come out and be a functioning adult, a functioning member of the workforce. And in college, at that time it felt maybe as a luxury. As you know, times have changed. We’re in a knowledge economy. Most of those jobs require more skill today than the jobs of a hundred years ago do. And like you in the book, we’ve also learned that college always has other benefits of making people into better citizens.

CHARLES MIZRAHI: Maybe in the past. Maybe in the past.

WILL BUNCH: Why can’t we dream? Instead of putting our young people up at age 18 and saying, you’re on your own? That story you told at the beginning about your friend making that $150,000 loan decision in a matter of seconds. That was a very powerful story. Because that happens all over this country every day that people make these decisions about the rest of their lives when they’re 18 years old — whether it’s going to college or not going to college, you’re not going to trade school or, you know, joining the army or whatever or whatever. And they may not be ready to make that decision. My closing in the book is that I think the government should do a lot more to offer a gap year of universal civilian service. And when I say universal, not mandatory. Because you and I both know how things are in this country right now. Nobody agrees to mandatory anything anymore. And that’s just the way it is. That universal incentive for taking this gap here would be considerable. And most people don’t want to do this. I mean, imagine if you had public projects where all of a sudden these kids from rural West Virginia and kids from Long Island, you know, are working together for a common project. That used to happen during wars.

CHARLES MIZRAHI: That happened during the draft. Right. When you had a draft, you had that. Right now, you don’t have anything.

WILL BUNCH: Right. And so this is kind of like a civilian draft. Like I said, because it doesn’t become such an individual society. It’s hard to make something like this mandatory like that, like the military draft was, but. I mean. I mean, you and I both. I mean, this is what we’re talking about. What’s happening to me with people yelling at each other?

CHARLES MIZRAHI: How about incentivizing those gap kids to do a civil service, national service? Work in the parks all that work and just get everyone, you know, you see the kid from I had on the show a few weeks ago, Rich Cohen, whose father was Herbie Cohen, the world’s greatest negotiator. And it was a really great show. And they talked about how Herbie Cohen was a Jewish kid from the Bronx, from Brooklyn, Bensonhurst, rather. And he goes in World War II and he joins any he’s bunking with soldiers from rural Alabama who never even saw big cities. Forget it. And this is the way everyone became friends and everyone learned to work together. And that was the integration of society. Now we’re so bifurcated where we don’t even know what the people in the next town think. You work with someone building a park in forestry — working with disabled children, working with what’s wrong with national service.

WILL BUNCH: I love it. I really you know, and I’ve heard President Biden has talked about supporting this, but like a lot of things on his agenda, he hasn’t gotten to it. I would say make this a priority because we’re living in a time where people are talking about the possibility of another civil war. And I’m not sure that’s going to happen. But the idea that the fact that so many people are even talking about: Is there going to be another civil war in this country? We’ve really reached the point where people need to learn how to reconnect, how to find each other. And what you said, how to know what’s going on in the next town. I just love that whole idea of what he said in World War II. My father in law is from South Philly, Italian-American. Never would’ve left the city, probably, but he got drafted to join the military to be enlisted at the end of World War II and went off to Alabama base there and met people from all over the country before he went off to a reunion as part of the occupation. And so many people had that experience. And when you think that and yet in this period after him, after World War Two in Africa, after these two wars where people came home to their communities in the sixties, I’m not saying Americans are perfect. American had a lot of problems, but it was a time where there was much more of a sense of national purpose, you know, that we were all on the same team and moving in the same direction.

CHARLES MIZRAHI: I agree with you. You know, we could all have differences of opinions, but we should not have differences of principles. And that’s what we’ve lost.

WILL BUNCH: Yeah. And as you mentioned, I will be doing other stuff too, you know. And Trump made his famous comments about the wildfires in California. It’s like, I will be raising the horse. It’s like, all right, let’s get an army of, you know, 200-year-olds to go out there and break the forest and help minimize the wildfires. I mean, I just think that was fantastic. The vision has taken you, and what would it be? Would it be an expensive program on some level? Yes. But I mean can we afford not to do it? The fact that we do such a bad job in helping our young people with this transition in 2000 has so many consequences. There have been studies now on so what happens to the what happens to the 18-year-olds who don’t deal with college? You get to become kind of lost in our time. I don’t know if you’ve heard about this phrase death of despair, but these two Princeton economists are studying it. This is a big reason why the life expectancy is actually dropping instead of going up is because so many middle aged and now even younger people, primarily in the working class and to be honest and in the white working class, for the most part are succumbing to opioid abuse and dying of overdoses. The suicide rate has increased dramatically. Alcohol is also a major contributor to death. We’re losing these people, and we pay for that. We pay for that as a society. We pay a lot, frankly, as taxpayers, to pay for the higher rate of people in prison, you know, so why not why not make that investment a positive in this?

CHARLES MIZRAHI: You know, I’d be the first. National service for everyone 18 to 20 if you graduate high school, two years of national service and you get your pick. We have three approved programs. This structure, the kids learn skills. They learn more importantly, to see other parts of the country and to see other people as people.

WILL BUNCH: Yeah, absolutely. I started off. But I was just going to make one other point. Like you said, I mean, I don’t know if I don’t know if it’s feasible for two years or not. But let’s say it was, you know, and so now kids are 20 and now they’re making that big decision about whether they want to go to an expensive school.

CHARLES MIZRAHI: They’re more mature. They’re more mature. They’ve been on their own. They have more context. They’ve seen the world.

WILL BUNCH: They know what they know, what they like to do and.

CHARLES MIZRAHI: They know what they don’t like and they know what they don’t like. You know where we are.

WILL BUNCH: Were just as dudes, you know, my kids and your kids, they didn’t know when they were picking their majors, when they were 18, they didn’t know. I mean, they both have masters degrees now. They both are doing really interesting things. But they both had to do kind of wanting it from when they were freshman in and.

CHARLES MIZRAHI: You know, look at how do you respect 18-year-old kids without any knowledge of the world to make a decision and declare a major on something they wanted or think they want to devote their life to and realize a year or two later, gosh, what a mistake that was. I took a look at well, I took AP Chem in high school and that was a choice I still regret that first day I went into class A what the hell am I doing? There’s no way I’m going to take medicine. And after like I think it was 9:15, the class started at nine. I realize I made a huge mistake. You know, it’s silly, but we, you know, we just make it. We put our kids in a position where the opportunity is so great for them to fail by making them make lifelong decisions and now financial decisions based on colleges. Why are they picking this college? What’s wrong with the state school? What’s wrong with the city school? Is a community school wrong? Not everyone needs to go to a four-year college and put themselves in $200,000 debt.

WILL BUNCH: And our kids feel that stress.

CHARLES MIZRAHI: Oh, tell me about it. Depression is on the rise among 18 to 24-year-olds. Suicides.

WILL BUNCH: Young people are off the charts. And I really think this set up around college or not college, you know, who has married and he’s worthless. And the fact, you know, don’t do that that’s not to be decided for people age 18. You know, that we determine whether we have merit with our entire lives, not based on some decision we made for seniors in high school.


WILL BUNCH: Outstanding folks. So.

CHARLES MIZRAHI: Yeah. I’ll let you have the last word. Go ahead, Will.

WILL BUNCH: Oh, yeah. So, I mean, National Service is just one of a number of ways in the book I talk about we should just radically rethink. The American dream of college kids. It’s not a fixed thing. Times have changed. And now we need to change what the ambitions and the goals for our young people are. We can do that as a country. But it’s tough and it involves some tough decisions. It may involve spending some money here in terms of dollars there, but we need to make some of these top.

CHARLES MIZRAHI: Folks, the name of the book is After the Ivory Tower Falls: How College Broke the American Dream and Blew Up Our Politics―and How to Fix It by Will Bunch. Well, I didn’t mention that you are a Pulitzer Prize winner. Wow. All right. Fantastic. Amazing. And you have a whole bunch of great books. Folks, if you agree, disagree, whatever it might be, it is obvious if you’re still paying off college loans. This is a book that really should be read and Will brings up a lot of great points, but doesn’t have all the answers. But just bringing up these questions is really for Will. Thanks so much for being on the show. I greatly appreciate it.

WILL BUNCH: It’s so much fun talking to you. Thanks for having me on. I really appreciated it.


CHARLES MIZRAHI: Thanks for listening to this episode of The Charles Mizrahi Show. If you’re a new listener, welcome! If you’ve been listening for a while, we’re glad to have you back. Either way, we’d love to know what you think of the show. Please leave a review if you listen on Apple Podcasts. Reviews make it easier for others to find the show. You can also see the video of the interview on The Charles Mizrahi Show channel on YouTube.




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