Book Review: “After the Ivory Tower Falls: How College Broke the American Dream and Blew Up Our Politics – and How to Fix It"

This article is part of NASFAA's occasional book review series, where members share their reflections on books, published within the past five years, on higher education themes of interest to financial aid professionals. The opinions offered and statements made do not imply endorsement by NASFAA or the authors' employers and do not guarantee the accuracy of information presented. Would you like to suggest a book for a future review? Email us at [email protected] with your recommendation.

History has never been my favorite subject. I find that, generally speaking, the presentation of historical information is a tad boring and dry. But in “After the Ivory Tower Falls, How College Broke the American Dream and Blew Up Our Politics – and How to Fix It,” author Will Bunch presents a captivating review of the higher education landscape from World War II to the current day in an effort to uncover how we turned the dream into a nightmare.

Arianna GrayReviewed by Arianna Gray, assistant director of financial aid and veteran services at Collin College in Plano, Texas

In his award-winning journalistic style, Bunch lays out how higher education became intricately woven into the politics, economics, and social environment of the day, with each trying to influence (and in some cases, strong-arm) the purpose of higher education.  

The story begins in the decades following World War II and the establishment of the G.I. Bill when a college education suddenly became a new national priority “for the public good.” During this era, tuition was relatively low and government funding was high.         

In the 50 years that followed, the American Dream of an affordable college degree collapsed, and a war on higher education commenced with the rise of what Bunch describes as “law and order politicians.” These policymakers directly blamed liberal education for the counterculture movement and set about vilifying degrees that led to free thinking, which they felt was leading to the decline of America.

The decades that followed saw major government funding cuts across the board, the loss of millions of blue-collar jobs (and entire industries) to overseas labor, privatization of colleges and universities, handing the student loan program over to greedy Wall Street financial institutions, and a rigged admissions system called a “meritocracy.” Higher education didn’t stand a chance.

Bunch concludes that while there is no easy solution to the soaring costs of a college education, such as canceling student loan debt; America will need to think outside the box to fix “the college problem” of astronomical tuition, inequitable admissions standards, and a lack of alternatives to conventional post-secondary education. He recommends providing high school graduates with more options than a traditional college degree, such as vocational or trade training, apprenticeships, and internships. He also talks about the idea of a universal national service program that would help young people better transition to adulthood as well as pay for college. These programs, where a person provides a public service and the government provides them something in return, like a college education, benefit the communities in which they operate as much as they benefit the person giving the service. While he notes this has been a controversial topic and would face many challenges, Bunch believes that a feasible system could be developed. Ultimately, he states, “Changing America for the good will start with changing our mindset.”

I thoroughly enjoyed this book. The author’s journalistic background lends itself to true storytelling without the tedious discourse so often associated with books of this nature. Bunch’s three-pronged approach to gathering information for the book enhanced its readability. He based his work on in-person reporting and observation, mostly through interviews with individuals on both sides of the issue who had direct knowledge about it. He supported that information by reading and citing dozens of foundational books published over the past 30 years on the challenges facing colleges, political issues, and the nation’s growing social division.

With those tools in hand, Bunch takes us on an insightful journey through the decades following World War II, homing in on the specific populations, policies, and social climate that contributed to the dismantling of the American dream of affordable college and the country’s many missed opportunities along the way.

I agree that the one-size-fits-all traditional college education may not be appropriate for everyone and that we must offer viable alternatives that are well-regarded in our society. Coming from a community college background, specifically a college that in recent years built a campus dedicated to vocational and trade education, I appreciate Bunch’s suggestion that programs such as this could be a step in the right direction toward healing our broken postsecondary system.

The book does not speak directly to financial aid administrators or other division leadership primarily because Bunch feels the issues are much larger than any one group within the college or university could sufficiently impact. However, this should not deter financial aid professionals, along with other senior administrators, from continuing to strive to develop strategies to increase student diversity, improve student support services for at-risk and first-generation students, and influence policies that create barriers to student success, such as those related to admissions criteria and student advising.

Ultimately, the true power of this book lies less with any particular department within the higher education setting, and more with people who care about the future of not just education, but society as a whole. Major reform is needed, and it’s not going to come fast or easy. While discussions of this book’s topics among the leadership of our nation’s colleges and universities might see some limited gains, the real change will come through a shift in the overall philosophies and attitudes of the American public and their influence over the country’s decision-makers. 

My recommendation — read it!  Books like “After the Ivory Tower Falls” continue to serve as road maps in our efforts to right the wrongs of the past and deliver a future that is hopeful and encouraging to those who want to achieve a real American Dream.

 “After the Ivory Tower Falls, How College Broke the American Dream and Blew Up Our Politics – and How to Fix It" by Will Bunch. William Morrow and Company, 2022, pp. 320.


Arianna Gray is the assistant director of financial aid and Veteran services at Collin College in Plano, Texas. She began her career in higher education 24 years ago and has served as assistant director at Collin for the past 15 years. Ari leads the training efforts for the financial aid department and was recently awarded the Carolyn J. Jones Mentoring and Teaching Award at the 2023 TASFAA Conference (Texas Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators). Ari holds a bachelor’s degree in exceptional education from the University of Central Florida and was the 17th person in the country to earn all 17 NASFAA credentials in 2018.


Publication Date: 1/3/2024

Raymond G | 1/4/2024 2:28:37 PM

David I agree. But it is quite apparent the anti-meritocracy crowd has become extreme in teaching and creating a culture where meritocracy is considered a bad thing altogether. As I said there is no compromise anymore. Meritocracy is treated as a tool used by villains. I know people that came from poor families made something of themselves and are now wealthy. They are stereotyped as always having had money. The recipe to their success was not money it was family and hard work. Now that they do have money they continue with the same lessons their poor parents passed on but with less struggle, something they should be proud of not admonished or demonized. Painting broad strokes across classes of people without considering their individual circumstances doesn't seem right. Maybe as I said before if we put more emphasize in kids at a young age to prepare them to meet those standards instead of lowering them then they could meet them. But no amount of money is going to fix those kids in broken homes be it rich or poor.

David S | 1/3/2024 4:21:06 PM

Here's the thing about meritocracy, Raymond. It's very often defined and measured in ways that tip the scales in ways that favor those who already have a leg up. Over the years, many schools have given lots of weight to things like SAT/ACT scores or AP courses in both admission and scholarship decisions. Study after study show those to all have high correlation to family wealth. So I wouldn't mind meritocracy so much if our society were a level playing field, but the undeniable truth is that educational opportunity has an awful lot to do with your zip code. That has to change.

Raymond G | 1/3/2024 12:0:32 PM

The anti-meritocracy sentiment speaks to one side and a specific audience. It alienates. Many aspects of society have meritocracy and overall it is a good thing. Colleges should promote meritocracy. Competition is what fuels new and better ideas and helps the human race move forward. Otherwise we have elite colleges such as Yale giving out A's and this helps no one. There is no incentive to give your best. Colleges need a mix of ideas including political ones. We need to compromise or agree to disagree. America is like a family. It is not perfect. It required a lot of work, ups and downs to be where it is. It has those members that aren't or weren't pleasant but we work through it and we should still be proud and grateful to be here. And that should be promoted in schools. Too much negativity is being pushed today. I would argue that students with negative attitudes will not be motivated to finish or even start school. Coincidently, it's this anger and outrage that gets more advertising for the media. People watch and read more in those causes but mostly just headlines without actually reading, researching or looking up the authors. The majority of thought is one sided. Colleges used to promote all sides. The days of agreeing to disagree and thinking more local are gone. We now are expected to be outraged with things happening in other places thousands of miles away and then stereotype and place blame on people or politics locally. Colleges should be open to all but they also shouldn't all be the same. There are plenty of options for various potential students. To truly help disadvantaged youth the focus should start in elementary. Too many times I see so much money thrown at a specific group with pour outcomes. Then standards are lowered further so that they attain a degree and people claim this is success. Opportunities need to happen at a young age and often it still may not help if there are outside factors that money simply can't fix.

David S | 1/3/2024 10:56:07 AM

Thank you for this review, Arianna, very well done; I coincidentally just learned about this book very recently and was curious about it. Sounds as though the author really tackled a complex issue thoroughly.

And as someone old enough to remember 60's campus unrest (although a bit too young to have participated in it at the time), I've always believed that the right's backlash against higher ed has long been rooted (to a large degree) in the culture wars of which those campus protests were the highest profile manifestation. The heightened sociopolitical awareness among America's youth coincided with expanding college access beyond the privileged few...and to this day, some of us think that's a good thing, others strongly oppose it.

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