Is college worth it with man and graduation hat

Today’s news overflows with concerns about the cost and benefits—“is college worth it?”--about higher education itself, its price, public vs. private, preparation of both students and professors, on the one hand, and fears about the maturation of Gen Z caught between social media, AI, and uncertain futures, on the other hand.

Parents and most others assume that established universities are relatively safe spaces for late-teenagers and young adults (now 18-26, no longer 18-22, years old) to grow and learn. They are often not. Irregular reports or alarms do not connect the different elements.

My focus is the failure of public universities because of their commitment to corporate profiteering, sloganeering, and private interests over public, image and finances over student lives. What I describe is true for most universities. My major example is The Ohio State University (OSU) in Columbus, Ohio, an especially egregious example of all-too-common problems. It is a very large institution that admits to none.

Unlike most peers, the land grant public university of Ohio has not publicly acknowledged its appropriation and occupation of Indigenous Peoples’ land for more than 150 years. It recently moved its administrative offices off-campus without public announcement. Comparatively, both are exceptional acts.

Its library and former central campus administrative building retain the names of major Columbus and Ohio racists despite years of student and public requests for university acknowledgement and renaming. Longstanding proposals include moving the oversized statue of William Oxley Thompson from the top of OSU’s signature The Oval to another location with historical interpretation.

OSU is committed to raising student costs, reducing staff benefits and full-time tenure-track faculty, and not maintaining campus facilities. Student dormitories rival faculty office buildings for most in-need of major and minor repair. At least two, literally falling down towers between the football stadium and the medical center have been slated for demolition for decades.

Ohio Stadium, aka the “Shoe” for its horseshoe shape, is continually upgraded despite the fact that the Athletic Department actually loses money each year. That striking fact is never admitted publicly. Only men’s football and basketball are profitable, both in very narrow contexts. They are over-funded. Other sports, especially women’s athletics, remain under-funded.

With unregulated rental scooters and bicycle use on campus—in violation of the laws, and no one obeying traffic signs, the campus is unsafe physically. OSU has significantly less campus safety than other major institutions. Campus crimes, from theft to physical violence and rape are underreported.

Along with the City of Columbus, OSU accepts money from the scooter rental companies not to enforce the law. Most students and all police agree: “we hate them.” Both OSU and Columbus are unique in the U.S. with respect to the dangerous, unlawful, free reign of scooters. Visits to other cities and universities large and small confirm this.

The university will not use its $7 billion endowment to meet its acknowledged needs. The  football coach’s salary is ten times the president’s despite his inconsistent record and nationally publicized rants that the nation must either “love the Buckeyes” or not. Of course, the major teams’ schedules are packed with inappropriate opponents in order to boost rankings.

New vice provosts and vice presidents are added each month, seldom with publicly available job descriptions or titles that make sense. They range from Inclusive Excellence to Strategic Enrollment Management. The rates of administrator to tenured faculty growth and differences in average salaries between administrators and faculty are the highest in the Big Eighteen (formerly Big Ten) and perhaps in the U.S.

There is no evidence that the countless DI—Diversity and Inclusion officers—but never DEI—Diversity-Equity-Inclusion—actually speak to each other. No one knows if the exclusion of Equity is by design or incompetence.

Underscored by the senior administration moving literally off campus away from historic Bricker Hall on the landmark The Oval without notice to a nondescript, vacant office building with no name on it, no one is in charge or ever responsible. President Kristina Johnson, who had never led an individual campus before her appointment, was ordered to resign in autumn 2022 for multiple reasons after barely two years in office. Supposedly, she “feared for her security,” despite paid bodyguards, drivers, and large residence far from campus and outside of the city.

The Board of Trustees saw no need to appoint an interim president for almost 90,000 students, faculty, staff at a time of local, state, and national uncertainty until late August. The latter included the budget, affirmative action, DEI, and unfilled administrative positions.

The recently appointed incoming president, Ted “Top Gun” or “Slap Shot” Carter, is among the least qualified in recent American university history. His only degree is a Bachelor of Science from the U.S. Naval Academy. Former head of the 1200 student Naval Academy, like his predecessor, he has never led an academic university campus. He is a “good solider,” hired to follow orders from the anti-academic Board of Trustees and the rightwing State Legislature.

The current provost resigned after barely two years shortly after Carter’s appointment. No doubt she had been searching for a new position for some time. Melissa Gilliam had neither public nor large university experience before her appointment as first Black and first woman provost. Reading the signs on the old and new administration building walls, she will be Boston University’s first Black and first woman president despite having never led a campus and a scant two years as OSU provost. Her signature “Academic Plan” is neither a plan nor academic.

The distance between knowing the university and managing it responsibly, equitably, and inclusively far exceeds the administration’s physical separation or the more than six miles from the president’s mansion in a suburban town.

Despite the ceaseless slogans of OSU’s one and only Black president, Michael Drake, (2013-2020), racial minority enrollment declines. OSU brazenly attempts to hide this by the Black associate provost for Strategic Enrollment including international students, especial Chinese “cash cows” as they are known, in reported totals of “minorities.”

A slogan-based, unfunded, no policies, and unfunded program—“Scarlet and Gray Advantage Plan” —promotes an impossible “debt-free graduation” without reducing costs now includes 150 of 7500 first-year students. Few students are even aware of it. It is the rapidly fading signature of departed “Born to Be a Buckeye” former president whose “Buckeye Love” was neither noticed nor missed.

It is no surprise that OSU ranks 186th in the United States in “economic diversity,” as reported in the New York Times in September 2023. Of course, neither the university itself nor its strictly controlled student newspaper The Lantern, the OSU-booster Columbus Dispatch, or OSU owned WOSU NPR affiliate mentioned this nationally reported news. The latter three overwhelmingly reprint OSU Marketing and Communications press releases without question as “news.” There are few quotation marks in their reporting.

That is the tip of the fossil-fueled—another campus contradiction and set of lies about environmental responsibility--iceberg.

A decade ago, imitating others, OSU added a second year of required on-campus residence. A purely profit-making move with one- or two-year older undergraduates serving as so-called “residential advisors,” there is no extra-curricular or curricular programming.

The Office of Student Life—but not lives—with more associate and assistant vice presidents, directors, and offices, few with descriptions, than anyone can count, and no annual reports, has no connection with the Office of Academic Affairs or the actual education of real-life students. Associate Vice President Melissa Shivers is unsure whether to sign her rare email responses as Dr. Shivers, Doc, or Melissa. Student Life specializes in the juvenilizing, even infantilization of young adult students.

There are few faculty or trained staff advisors on campus. Many fourth-year students have never spoken to an advisor. Their transcripts show that.

Unreported rape, assault, nudity, drunkenness, drug abuse, and theft are common in dorms old and new. They are unsafe and unregulated. Students flee from them. Associate Vice President T.J. Logan professes to know nothing about any of this—despite all students’ and their parents’ awareness. Local news sources will not report this.

Befitting campus traditions and financial influences, fraternities and sororities are one accepted escape from residential requirements for second year students. OSU subsidizes private sororities and fraternities, most of them in rental houses off campus. Their landlords donate handsomely to the university.

More and more second year students escape to costly off-campus rentals for peace and safety, often with parental collusion in their deception. This is the new training in incivility for the 21st century. Their landlords exert enormous power over the university who will not inform its own students about technically illegal private rental owners’ business models of cheating their young tenants.

OSU’s secret illegal collusion with the City of Columbus Zoning Enforcement and the private landlords not to enforce zoning laws is now well documented by inspectors’ testimony, data on violations, visual inspection of the area, and the refusal of any the complicit parties to respond to any questions about it. Neither student tenants nor homeowners in the historic residentially zoned University District  have rights in the eyes of OSU, the City, or absentee landlords.

The worst landlord, NorthSteppe Reality, sued constantly by present and former tenants and now in a class-action suit, has given OSU at least $5 million. One of its uninspected houses erupted in fire in August. The smoke alarms did not operate. The fire department evacuated ten residents. OSU did not send out a safety alert. NorthSteppe began repairs the next morning without fire department inspection.

The largest and one of the least well maintained, HomeTeam, is now owned by a Dallas, Texas-based corporation. They are unreachable by usual means of communication. OSUlive, which has no connection to OSU, displays zoning violations including trash and illegal signs on every property.

For many “sisters” but especially “brothers,” moderate regulation in response to hazing and rapes leads 3rd and 4th students into private rental properties that cater to their lawbreaking. Their landlords, police, and OSU tolerate drunkenness, illegal structures in yards, noise violations, and violence that mark every weekend of the school year despite complaints by nearby students and homeowners. Neither OSU nor the city actively police the area. City police are “strongly advised” not to enforce the law or issue citations, officers tell long-term homeowners.

OSU’s Willie Young Office of Off-Campus Student Life is disconnected from the neighborhood, its long-term, homeowning residents, and the students themselves. It willfully violates city laws and refuses to discuss any issues with residents. It lies uncontrollably.

Student Life serves at the behest of the absentee landlords and fraternities and sororities who pay OSU well for their privileges to violate city law and cheat, steal, and endanger student lives. The current secret illegal collusion among the City of Columbus, Ohio State University, and the absentee private landlords is unprecedented in American university and urban history. Crime by and against both students and homeowners is out of control with no response by City or university.

Both Off-Campus Student Life led by Dilna Cama and Fraternity and Sorority Buckeye Life led by “Dr. Kim” DeFreitas refuse to inform students about the nature of the area, the relevant city laws, or their own rights. They only show disrespect to the long-term senior citizen homeowners, most with OSU connections, whose rights and well-being their student charges “exceptional student experience” threaten and disrupt. They refuse all modes of communication, violating university codes of conduct as well as basic courtesy and civility.

Despite decades of promises. OSU’s responsibility and actions only decline. Student Life now actively and indirectly promotes student misconduct and illegality. OSU harms both its own student off-campus residents and their neighbors. Unlike most of  OSU’s history, no administrators and almost no faculty or staff live in the historic University District. Most live outside the city.

Suspended fraternities own multiple houses and have “rush” to attract new members. They boldly violate zoning laws. OSU cannot explain why and how this is permitted. For fund-raising, and promoting cross-generational drunkenness, Parents’ Weeks proliferate along with trash on lawns, sidewalks, and streets in the residentially zoned but now absentee landlord dominated University District.

Student Life refuses to tell off-campus students that the University District is a residential area. Many students believe that it is somehow “campus,” but cannot explain why City laws do not apply regardless. That is OSU’s much advertised but never defined “Exceptional student experience” or the answer to “WWBD?”—What Would Brutus—OSU’s juvenile cartoonish mascot—DO?

OSU and the City of Columbus are well aware of all of these problems. Despite contradicting all slogans about university responsibility and the written laws, private landlords’ contributions trump student and neighbor safety, legal, and civil rights. That is the Columbus and the OSU Way. Money talks. Students pay. Neighbors’ rights vanish.

The landlords and OSU agree that the laws do not apply to them and proceed accordingly. Benefiting from the same private largess, the City of Columbus colludes in this. At present, zoning inspections and law enforcement are minimal. Yet within three weeks from mid-August to early September 2023, one uninspected student rental property with ten students almost burned down, and a 77-year-old was murdered in her home. OSU did not issue “safety alerts” in either instance.

OSU and Columbus practice safety by slogan. OSU promotes the radically incomplete and delayed reporting on LexisNexis, at which both Campus Safety and Columbus Police laugh. Limited “joint” Campus and Columbus Police patrols stop almost no violations and are not integrated with 911 or Non-emergency reporting systems. OSU’s mostly volunteer Buckey Block Watchers are slow moving physical symbols without direction. University and CPD do little, always late, about car thefts or robberies. for example.

Zoning Inspectors and Columbus Police admit that they are ordered not to enforce the City’s laws. This is the direct result of secret illegal agreements between the City government, OSU, and private property owners. Public data support officers’ testimony.

OSU’s students and homeowning neighbors, mostly senior citizens with relationships to OSU, be damned or robbed, burned, stabbed, or shot. 

Why should Ohio’s declining flagship public university care about any of that? Its business model is anti-student and anti-neighborhood. Despite public objections, OSU secures tax abatement and tax returns for its building projects for the privately endowed for-profit Wexner Medical Center, and more recently the fictitious Carmenton Innovation District.

Inside and outside sources agree that OSU does not need this undercover public funding for private development. The Innovation District, which my sources tell me was meant to be called Carmen Town, is all of one unattractive largely empty building and another in construction. Both for are intended for private not public “research.” Lane Avenue near Highway 315 in 2023 will never be Silicon Valley in the 1960s.

This is city and university collusion, a knowing waste of public funds desperately needed for schools, health care, safety, and much more—sadly, on as well as off campus. Despite the city of Columbus growing to surround OSU, the university has never accepted its geographic location and both charter and ethical obligations to city and state.


Harvey J. Graff is Professor Emeritus of English and History, inaugural Ohio Eminent Scholar in Literacy Studies, and Academy Professor, Ohio State University . Author of many books on social history, the history of literacy and education, and interdisciplinarity, he writes about social history and higher education for Times Higher Education, Inside Higher Education, Washington Monthly, Publishers Weekly, Against the Current, Columbus Free Press, and newspapers. Searching for Literacy: The Social and Intellectual Origins of Literacy Studies was published in 2022. My Life with Literacy: The Continuing Education of a Historian. The Intersections of the Personal, the Political, the Academic, and Place is forthcoming. He is now writing Reconstructing the “Uni-versity” from the Ashes of the “Mega- and Multi-versity.”