Students Occupy Colleges

November 22, 2011 | Blog

In a sense, this movement was inevitable.

Higher education has been transformed over the last 50 years, reshaped in many ways that bring into question what it’s for, how it works, who should lead it, and most importantly who it is serving. It is the failure of colleges and universities to sufficiently grapple with and address those key questions that led students to Occupy Colleges, and faculty to stand with them, and set up college administrators to be largely inept in response.

The experience of postsecondary education today is highly polarized. Among those attending college are the kinds of students who have always attended college–those who parents and grandparents have degrees, who expected them to go, and ensured they were financially, academically, and otherwise prepared. These are the students who dominate enrollment at the private colleges, take advantage of liberal arts institutions, and who not only earn bachelor’s degrees in large numbers but also graduate and professional degrees. But in addition, there is a wide swath of students for whom college was not entirely planned– it may have felt expected of them, and they did work hard to get ready, but they were unaware of how unprepared college would be to meet their needs. Little did they know that most colleges and universities act as if it’s the students’ job to get “college-ready,” rather than the colleges’ job to be prepared to meet the needs of all who enter.

These are the students stunned by the high and rising costs of attendance, and the lack of grant aid available to them. These are the students willing to work long hours to make ends meet, but continually surprised that the faculty and administrators don’t respond in turn to accomodate their needs with flexible scheduling, remote advising, and timetables for timely degree completion that don’t require full-time enrollment. These are the students who attend the vast majority of our public colleges and universities, and our community colleges, and these are the students at the heart of Occupy Colleges.

Higher education is not sure about these students. Sure, the initial shots were fired long ago, during the Free Speech Movement. But that was about far more than how higher education would work; it was about how society would work. And since that time, colleges and universities have become less–not more– hospitable to what they like to call “nontraditional” students. Those that some have labeled “tenants” rather than “landowners,” decried as “academically adrift,” and said to care far less about the hard work of studying. Serving these students has evolved as a speciality, rather than the primary function it ought to be when they comprise at least half of the undergraduate population.

The evidence is everywhere. The growth of the student services industry has segregated the job of meeting students’ needs to administrators, letting faculty off the hook. The shift to part-time, contingent labor has lessened the ability of professors to spend the kind of time required to really get to know and address their students’ needs–thus creating a stronger rationale for relying on administrators. It would be far better for people to serve dual roles, as teacher and administrator, rather than to continue to pretend the two can be effectively performed in isolation from one another. States have disinvested in public higher education at the same time that the children of the nation’s leaders are more likely than ever to opt for private higher education. Public colleges and universities point to those declines in state support and rationalize that since they must have money, they should move to a more “efficient” model of high tuition/high aid, a model that works only in theory. In practical, political life, real world families take sticker prices as real, and mistrust discounting. Politicians and university administrators rarely have the appetite to tie their own hands and fully commit to increasing aid whenever tuition rises. And almost none consider the sharp hypocrisy in their support for free public k-12 education, juxtaposed against their refusal to demand free higher education.

Many, but not all, students are catching on. And therein lies the rub. The move to Occupy Colleges is not a unified front: for every student supporter, there is a student who thinks it’s stupid. The students I observe decrying the effort are those who have been well-treated by the current system. Same goes for faculty: those who interact all the time with the so-called nontraditional student and know intimately how we are failing them much more often support this movement. The others, especially those who put research first, often do not.

It’s clear who has long been most successful. After all, there is now a move to slash a federal financial aid program (Pell) whose costs have risen (a) because it is doing its job in serving the needs of many students from low-income families and (b) because powerful interests have ensured that government considers to subsidize private and for-profit higher education. If Occupy Colleges could end (b) then the costs of the Pell program would fall dramatically. It won’t happen–because higher education refuses to even consider being more about the economically disadvantaged student.

Students are laying these issues at the feet of college administrators and they are stumbling and mumbling in response. Their power-hungry allies, including their overly-compensated athletic directors and boosters and police forces, are doing everything they can to stop it.

It should not be stopped. Students should Occupy Colleges. Let’s try that again. Students should occupy colleges. Not administrators. Students, and their educators, should occupy colleges.

NOTE: This post was amended on November 23 in response to a very cogent comment submitted to the blog.


  1. Reply


    November 22, 2011

    I agree with so much of what you say. But, I do have to comment a bit on what you say about student services. Most of us in student services see ourselves as educators, first and foremost. Some of us have administrative responsibilities, but those duties should always be a part of achieving an educational mission.

    I do feel that there is way too much organizational separation between what happens in the classroom and what happens outside the classroom. And that faculty and staff alike need to know more about what's happening in each others' arenas. Student don't experience their lives in 2 separate arenas, and we shouldn't structure our institutions to treat them as if they do. (Gary Rhoades spoke eloquently about this at ASHE.)

    When you say, "Students, and their educators, should occupy colleges," I wholeheartedly agree. And, whether I'm teaching sociology as an adjunct instructor or doing my full-time student services job, I too am an educator.

  2. Reply

    Sara Goldrick-Rab

    November 22, 2011

    Hi Julie,

    I think that the best combination is exactly what you have-- both teaching and student services. It is unfortunately far too uncommon. The blurring of these arenas is critical-- I strongly agree with both you and Gary.


  3. Reply


    November 22, 2011

    Oh, yes, there are faculty at my institution who believe that administrators should be required to teach at least every other year. And I have to agree with them. I would actually LOVE a job where I could readily combine student services/administration, scholarship, and teaching (and still have a balanced life), but it's a sad reality that very few jobs where one can do all of those things actually exist.

    Thanks as always for your thought-provoking posts!

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