Unless you stepped out of your TARDIS just yesterday from somewhere else in time and space, or you've been living in a cave, you know that right now in the US we are facing a time of huge changes in the educational system. Those changes include public school reforms, charter schools, home schooling, huge proliferation of college attendance, declining rates of return on college degrees for many students, and vast tuition rate and fee growth and the commensurate funding changes that go along with that. In some ways, it would be easier to start building a whole new educational system from the ground up, pre-K through graduate degrees, than face all the changes we are right now.
These have not been fast or easy changes, and will continue to be not fast or easy for the foreseeable future, I would venture to guess. Even if we consider No Child Left Behind as the beginning of big educational changes- and that's questionable, as NCLB was the legislative result of changes that were already being discussed and attempted- the US has had over a decade facing these educational changes. As old as it makes me feel to admit, I've dealt with students that were raised predominantly in an age of NCLB, and it's definitely changed the way students see classes at the college level.
Financially, the system of the university is also facing drastic changes, as state and federal funds (outside of loans) have been cut drastically, and universities are being forced to run a more business-minded model, which doesn't always fit the goals of university (as I've blogged about previously). The source of funds that has increased to keep up with tuition is student loans, which currently sit at a national level nearing 1 trillion dollars, a debt level near that of the real estate bubble who's rupture shook the entire US. As part of these financial changes, many universities are looking to cut and have cut wherever they can, and as in most industries, the place with the most room to cut costs is in compensation. And like other businesses, many universities are more and more often opting for part-time employees when possible. Why hire a tenure track assistant professor (~40K annually) when you can hire adjuncts to do the same work of three classes a semester, two semesters a year (~15K annually, for those same class loads).
Unfortunately, what doesn't get factored into that equation is the loss of teaching quality if teachers are harried, over-worked, under-paid, and stressed about making rent. Or the loss in high quality researchers, as professors at many universities not only teach but forward their area of expertise by continuing to conduct research. And there's the loss in the service community, as I have yet to meet an adjunct serving on committees or organizing outreach efforts nearly as much as tenure track professors do. So students end up paying a premium price for a cut-rate education, and that's a travesty.
All of this is to say that education in the US at all levels is sorely needing reform, but not in the direction that we're moving, which is taking us back, making education less comprehensive, more cost-prohibitive, and less available, just as we increasingly need an informed and critically thinking electorate. It's almost enough to make one wonder why one went to grad school in the first place.
Almost, but not quite.