Op-Ed: 'Higher Education' Is A Waste Of Money

Andrew Hacker and Claudia Dreifus i

Andrew Hacker and co-author Claudia Dreifus distinguish between education and vocational training. Tequila Minsky hide caption

itoggle caption Tequila Minsky
Andrew Hacker and Claudia Dreifus

Andrew Hacker and co-author Claudia Dreifus distinguish between education and vocational training.

Tequila Minsky

Professor Andrew Hacker says that higher education in the U.S. is broken.

He argues that too many undergraduate courses are taught by graduate assistants or professors who have no interest in teaching.

Hacker proposes numerous changes, including an end to the tenure system, in his book, Higher Education?

"Tenure is lifetime employment security, in fact, into the grave" Hacker tells NPR's Tony Cox. The problem, as he sees it, is that the system "works havoc on young people," who must be incredibly cautious throughout their years in school as graduate students and young professors, "if they hope to get that gold ring."

That's too high a cost, Hacker and his co-author, Claudia Dreifus, conclude. "Regretfully," Hacker says, "tenure is more of a liability than an asset."

TONY COX, host:

Now the Opinion Page.

It's August, and in a few weeks, millions of teenagers will trek across town or across the country to their new college home for the next four years or more. A college degree can now cost more than a good-sized family home, by some estimates as much as a quarter million dollars.

Andrew Hacker argues, in a new book, that too often, college is not worth the cost. Our system of higher education, he says, is broken. Andrew Hacker is the author of - the coauthor, make that - of "Higher Education? How Colleges are Wasting Our Money and Failing Our Kids and What We Can Do About It."

If you are a recent college grad or an educator, we want to hear from you. Tell us what you think about higher education and how to fix it. Our number here in Washington is 800-989-8255 - 800-989-8255. Our email address is talk@npr.org. And to join the conversation, go to our website, npr.org and click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Professor Andrew Hacker joins me now from our New York bureau. Professor, nice to have you on TALK OF THE NATION again.

Professor ANDREW HACKER (Author, "Higher Education? How Colleges are Wasting Our Money and Failing Our Kids and What We Can Do About It"): It's very good to be here, Tony.

COX: You know, your book was quite interesting. And at the risk of opening up a real can of worms in terms of the time that we have to talk about it, what's wrong with higher education?

Prof. HACKER: As you know, the title of our book has a question mark in it, you know? And we're really asking, how much of what goes under this term is higher and how much is education? And we came to the conclusion that a lot of what goes on in our college campuses isn't education at all. And much of it, I'm afraid, can't be called higher either.

COX: Now as you talk about - in the book, you hearken back to a time when there was more of what I guess would be called a liberal arts education, where we studied languages and philosophy and things of that sort, as opposed to what you also describe as the more current kinds of curricula that are geared, as you describe it, toward getting people out of college and into a job.

Prof. HACKER: Yes, of the three million freshmen who are going to arrive on campuses in September, over half of them are - have already chosen vocational majors, like fashion merchandising or sports management. We think this is a real misuse of what could be four precious, rewarding years. We would - if we had our way, everybody would take a liberal arts degree.

COX: Now, we have a - some emails are already starting to come in. I want to read the first one to you. This is from a listener in Kansas who says, I am professor at a large state university where I teach the introductory course on psychology to classes of 1,000 students. In that course, I lecture on topics such as the scientific method, that is critical thinking; brain and behavior, learning, memory, intelligence, emotions and health, social interactions and abnormal behaviors. What is relevant here is that years later, students often write to me, commenting on something on which I had lectured years earlier that had become relevant in their lives, and they ask for more information. A college education can be job training, but it can also be education for life. Is my class irrelevant? I don't think so, and apparently my students dont think so either. What do you say to him?

Prof. HACKER: Well, I give four stars to that professor. In education, there is - higher education, there is a place for lectures, place for small seminars, a place for intimate classes, a place, even, for chatting with the professor in the cafeteria. And if this particular professor in Kansas can turn on a thousand students in a room, I say let's clone him.

COX: Genevieve(ph) writes from Des Moines, Iowa. Class size is a problem at all levels of education. Reduce size to be competitive. If we do anything, America must invest in education for all. We must make math, science, language, reading and foreign language the top five priorities at all levels of education. Is she right?

Prof. HACKER: I think shes absolutely right. In our view, we are, shall we say, unreconstructed Jeffersonians. Its our view that everybody, every young person, has a mind, has an intellect, has curiosity. If theres a student now who, say, basically majoring in beer at a huge state university, that very same student could be presenting a seminar paper on Moliere. It can be done if the teachers rise to the occasion.

COX: Now, one of the things you talk about in the book is the system of how our professors in college are the I guess you would call it the strata of being a professor from part-time, an adjunct, and then assistant associate and then full professor and so forth, and that along with tenure it has actually, in your view, been bad for higher education. Why do you say so?

Prof. HACKER: Well, what is tenure? Tenure is lifetime employment security, in fact, into the grave. Three hundred thousand professors have that status. Theyre all over, not just at the big Ivy League universities, at small colleges at well as well. Weve added it all up, and we just come to conclusion that, regretfully, that tenure is more of a liability than an asset. For one thing, it works havoc on young people who, for their 14 years, lets say, at graduate schools as young assistant professors, have to be very, very cautious if they hope to get that gold ring.

COX: We also have another couple of emails. Theyre really coming in. People are very interested in this topic. This comes from Keith(ph) in Boston, Massachusetts. Keith writes: Higher ed is not broken, but it is in trouble because it attempts to follow a for-profit business model. It has become unaffordable, because starting with the Reagan administration the federal government has not supported education. Is Keith right or wrong?

Prof. HACKER: Hes right and wrong. Currently, as you indicated at the outset, Tony, at a private college, its going to cost you really up toward $50,000 a year. Imagine that, $50,000 a year. Thats over what the typical American worker makes. Now, why is that? Its because colleges know they can keep raising their prices as theyve been doing, well ahead of inflation, and the students will come and take out loans. In other words, our colleges are being really built on the indebtedness that young people, starting at the age of 18, are signing papers that they are going to live with until they're 38. We regard this as totally immoral.

COX: Heres a caller coming in from Rockford, Illinois. Its Mike(ph), Mike, welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.

MIKE (Caller): Hi. Thanks for having me on.

COX: Your question?

MIKE: Yeah. I have just a kind of a brief comment, I guess, and Ill ask how the author feels about this. I just finished getting my masters degree in philosophy, which is kind of (unintelligible) of the field by many of my friends who went to college. And Im trying to get into a PhD program, and Im finding that a lot of the people that Im talking to are saying that the publish or perish mentality. Universities have kind of ruined teaching in a lot of fields, and I guess philosophy in particular, and it stopped teachers from wanting to teach the one-on-one classes and kind of get students acclimated to getting a lauded education because theyre just trying to get published. And it seems like that thats causing a lot of pressure in higher education and taking a lot of professors out of the classroom, at least mentally. I was wondering what the author thought about that.

COX: Thank you very much, Mike. What do you think about that, and...

Prof. HACKER: I agree with Mike three times over. In our view, there is too much publication. More stuff is being published than is ever needed, and wed even say too much research. I know that could be controversial. You ask, hey, what about a cure for cancer? But when 3,000 people are writing articles on William Faulkner, thats not exactly curing cancer.

Now, nowadays, in order to get the proper credentials, professors take time off from teaching and frequently with sabbaticals that your tuition dollars pay for. At Harvard, which is not exactly a typical place, but Harvard has a good history department. In the current coming academic year, 40 percent, 4-0 percent, of Harvards history professors will be off on leave. Is that a college?

COX: Interesting question that you raise. Thank you for the call. So that people dont get the idea that we are here simply bashing higher education, I know that your book talks about some solutions and some ideas. Before we get to what those specifics are, Professor Hacker, let me ask you this question. In your research, whats right about college and higher education now?

Prof. HACKER: Whats right are the colleges which make undergraduates the center of their attention. If you go to a big state university, Tony, youll find more adults walking around than you will undergraduates. These are people who work in huge centers, research institutes, even a huge hospital. And you begin to wonder, is this, you know, college education?

Now, there are good colleges. There are liberal arts colleges like, for example, Hendrix in Arkansas, Pomona in California, Carleton in Minnesota, which give an excellent education because freshmen through seniors are the center of their attention, as I said. There are also regional state colleges which are not they really know theyre not going to get into the major league, so they, too, emphasize teaching. We went to Western Oregon University in Monmouth, Oregon, a one-traffic-light town. And we were delighted what we saw: The students were enthusiastic, and the faculty were as dedicated as any weve ever seen. There are plenty of such places.

COX: Well, maybe there is one in Eugene, Oregon, where Zach(ph) is standing by to talk to us. Zach, welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.

ZACH (Caller): Hi, guys, nice to talk to you today. I wanted to make a comment/question regarding lower ed. And it's - really, what we're seeing is a systemic issue with lower ed transferring into upper ed, and then those people graduating and making decisions that reflect the school.

And it seems like in lower ed, we're more focused on (unintelligible) baking type where we learn facts instead of the critical thinking skills that allow us to evolve our society into a profitable way. And I'm wondering if it's - part of this is part of the elite trying to deconstruct the lower class to help maybe perpetuate the differences between rich and poor and subjugate the masses.

COX: Zach, thank you very much for that call. By the way, you're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

So Professor Hacker, is he on to something?

Prof. HACKER: Well, Zach has an interesting point here. Currently, about 30 percent of our population has or will have bachelor's degrees. And it's moving up to about 35 percent. It's really - we're turning out a million and a half BAs every year. So we're not talking 30, 35 percent. That's a pretty large group. Now, I do agree with Zach that most of them have been in large lectures filled with PowerPoints, taught by overworked adjuncts and teaching assistants. They're not getting much of an education. They're not getting a chance to use their minds. And we would like to see everybody have, let's say, for example, small seminar.

The University of Tennessee, for example, does this. For every incoming freshman, there is a small seminar at the beginning with a professor who really wants to teach that. That's a good start.

COX: Let's take a call, and let's also read an email. But first, we'll go to the caller. This is Shannon(ph), from Charlotte, North Carolina. Shannon, welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.

SHANNON (Caller): Thank you very much. Thank you for having me. My comment was just to go back to the discussion of vocational degrees versus liberal arts. I recently - I've been in college for about 10 years. I'm 28, almost 29 years old, and I recently switched to nursing, recently graduated. I think one of the problems is, especially for people who are in the middle class or lower middle class arena, it's just too expensive to go get a liberal arts degree, get a bachelor's degree, go out and try to work to pay off that $40,000, $50,000 of debt and then try to make their way back to a master's program.

A lot of us never make our way back to the master's but we're so in debt with the bachelor's degree that we don't find that it's worthwhile to go back to get the master's program. So when I went back to get my - when I basically changed majors, it was more to find something that I knew that I can make money and pay off the debt versus not having any idea of whether I'm going get a job and if I was going make enough money to pay off the expenses that I incurred while going to school.

COX: Shannon, thank you very much for that. I guess the economic reality is such, and that's sort of what you were talking about in the beginning, whether or not this whole higher education experience, Professor Hacker, is worth it. The alternatives, economically good ones, are what?

Prof. HACKER: Well, first of all, one of the problems with what we call vocational training, is that the decision is made, let's say, when a person is a senior in high school or a freshman in college. And a lot of them say, hey, I want to go to engineering school. Do you know, Tony, that almost half of engineering school students drop out? Why? Because they discover engineering isn't what they thought it was. And by the way, the teaching in engineering is absolutely abysmal. But those kids have wasted, you know, $20,000 maybe more in those first few years of their vocational training that didn't work out. What we'd say is take that risk, take a bachelor's degree. And then when you're 21, 22, then decide what you want to do. You know, then you'll have a greater perspective of - greater chance of working out.

COX: One of the things that occurring now, Andrew Hacker, is that with the technology, distance learning, an online learning have become larger and larger pieces of the higher educational pie, a good thing or not?

Prof. HACKER: We went down to Florida Gulf Coast University to watch, what should we say, techno-teaching at work. We observed a class with 1,400 students in the arts, the performing arts, you know, and visual arts - no teacher, no professor, no classroom, all done sitting in front of a computer screen. We added it all up and we decided we weren't too happy with it, but we want to give it a try. Because in this techno age, you can really do quite lively things, interactive things on a TV - on a video screen. And we're willing to give it a chance. We're not saying no right now.

COX: You have written a book that I'm sure would raise the hackles on some people in the academy. We're going to bring our conversation to a close with this, Professor Hacker, what kind of response have you gotten to the suggestion, and the criticisms, of higher learning from your book - really briefly, please?

Prof. HACKER: Thus far, very gratifying, Tony. I must say the reviews, in places we never thought, we got very favorable attention. But the people who have been - complain most are entrenched professors, who are in this cocoon called tenure, who think that their sabbaticals and their research are really the most important thing in the world. And we're saying, no, the students are most important.

COX: Thank you very much. Andrew Hacker is the co-author of "Higher Education: How Colleges Are Wasting Our Money and Failing Our Kids and What We Can Do about It." You can read more about what he says falls outside of higher educations obligations. There's an excerpt from "Higher Education" at our website, npr.org. Just click on TALK OF THE NATION. Once again, thank you, professor.

And tomorrow, Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius joining us. We'll talk about the new health care law. I'm Tony Cox. This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

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Excerpt: 'Higher Education?'

Cover of 'Higher Education?'
Higher Education?: How Colleges Are Wasting Our Money And Failing Our Kids — And What We Can Do About It
By Andrew Hacker and Claudia Dreifus
Hardcover, 288 pages
Times Books
List price: $26


Our concern, both in this book and for the world at large, is with the undergraduate years. We regard this as a span when young people are sufficiently mature yet still not fully formed, when they can begin to discover themselves and take on the universe. But before we go into particulars, we'd like to specify what we do not regard as higher education's obligations.

• As we've noted, we want to distinguish education from training. Today's young people are likely to live to be ninety. So there is no need for them to start preparing themselves for careers while they are in their teens. We join Diane Ravitch, who laments that "American higher education has remade itself into a vast job-training program." Indeed, since the mid-1960s, English majors have dropped 51 percent in relation to all degrees, history has experienced a 55 percent decline, and students opting for mathematics are down a whopping 74 percent, despite a putative demand for high-tech experts.

• Nor do we feel undergraduate years should be an apprenticeship for a PhD, let alone a first step toward an academic career. We feel obliged to say this because too many college courses center on topics of interest only to professors. But professors don't have a monopoly on erudition. We believe that the arts and sciences, properly understood, must have a broader and deeper base.

• Perhaps the best way to get support for higher education, or so it is thought, is to warn that the United States is falling behind other nations in skills needed in a competitive world. But the alarms so resoundingly sounded don't decry that we are lagging in philosophy or the humanities. Rather, it's that in countries like China, India, and Korea more students are specializing in the sciences and engineering. The worry is that our workforce —including college graduates —isn't ready for a high-tech age. At this point, we'd only ask, if our economy needs more scientists and engineers, why students aren't enrolling?

• Please give us a hearing while we suggest that a purpose of college is not to make students into better citizens. Of course, we'd like everyone to be committed to their communities. But we aren't convinced that we should look to colleges to instill "the knowledge needed to be a reasonably informed citizen in a democracy," as Harvard's Derek Bok puts it. The unstated assumption here is that people who have attended college will end up being better citizens than those who have not. For our part, we're not that sure that the kinds of insights and information imparted in college classrooms lead to a higher quality of civic engagement. Nor should we forget highly educated cadres described as "the best and the brightest" have plunged us into unwinnable wars and onto economic shoals. For our own part, we haven't found that ballots cast by college graduates express more cogent thinking than the votes of other citizens. Even now, as a nation, are we more thoughtful than the Illinois farmers who stood for three hours as they pondered the Lincoln-Douglas debates?

• Or listen to Shirley Tilghman, Princeton's president, speaking at its 2009 commencement: "Princeton invests its considerable resources in its students in the belief that we are preparing young men and women to become leaders and change the world for the better." Had we been there, we're sure we would have applauded. Still, to our mind, leadership refers to a willingness and ability to rouse people to a party, a purpose, a cause. Here, too, we're not convinced that what happens in classrooms or on campuses nurtures leaders more than other settings — than, for example, back roads of the Mississippi Delta or lettuce fields in California. We will agree that college graduates are more likely to attain positions where they rank ahead of others. Yet if Princeton and other colleges boast strong contingents of such people, most of them got to their corner offices by being appointed or promoted. If that's all Shirley Tilghman meant, we can agree.

What do we think should happen at college? We want young people to use their minds as they never have before, thinking hard about realities and issues that strain their mental powers. They should be urged to be imaginative and inquiring, to take risks without having to worry about their transcripts or alienating their teachers. To quote a friend, colleges should be making their undergraduates more interesting people. Higher education is an ongoing conversation, created for students poised at adulthood, which can and will continue throughout their lives.

This is a natural process, one for which young people are already fitted. After all, curiosity comes with being human. The problem today is that too much college teaching seeks to channel thinking into tight academic grooves. That is why we've deliberately avoided using terms like cognitive and analytic, or phrases like critical thinking and moral reasoning. There's nothing inherently wrong with these rubrics, it's just that they've been recast to force freshmen to view the world through professorial prisms.

In fact, there are thousands of undergraduate teachers who regard education as a lively interchange. We have sat, admiringly, in many of their classes. Yet few of them are recognized beyond their campuses, since they haven't conducted the research their disciplinary peers demand. So we'll cite some better-known models. There is Princeton's Paul Krugman, a Nobel Laureate, who makes economics explicable in the New York Times. Or Jill Lepore of Harvard, who brings history to life for readers of The New Yorker. Cosmologist Lawrence Krauss of Arizona State University, who loves meeting with high school students and brings his Nobelist friends to chat with them. These professors do not set boundaries between how they address a general audience and what they do in their classrooms. For them — and for us — it's all higher education.

From the book Higher Education?: How Colleges Are Wasting Our Money and Failing Our Kids — and What We Can Do About It by Andrew Hacker and Claudia Dreifus. Copyright 2010 by Andrew Hacker and Claudia Dreifus. Reprinted by arrangement with Times Books, an imprint of Henry Holt and Company LLC.

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