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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, 271 pages, Henry Holt & Co, List Price: $26 |


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Higher Education?
How Colleges Are Wasting Our Money and Failing Our Kids---and What We Can Do About It
Andrew Hacker and Claudia Dreifus

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Book Summary

Takes readers on a road trip from Princeton and Harvard to Evergreen State and Florida Gulf Coast University, and reveals those faculties and institutions that need to adjust their priorities and others that are getting it right.

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Note: Book excerpts are provided by the publisher and may contain language some find offensive.

Excerpt: Higher Education?


Every year, in the closing days of summer, a large swath of middle- class Americans engage in a ritual unique to their culture. In driveways from Brookline to Bakersfield, they fill their vehicles with newly purchased goods, ranging from laptops to designer jeans, high- end sneakers, and coffeemakers. In the back sits Jennifer or Jeremy, sending off last- minute text messages to friends. Mom and Dad MapQuest for the best route to towns with names like Chapel Hill, Northfield, and Pomona.

Welcome to the Annual Migration, when some 2.6 million freshmen take their first steps toward adulthood at the nation's 4,352 colleges and universities. For most families, it's an emotional moment. If their destination is one of what Barron's Guide calls the "most competitive" institutions— say, Stanford or Emory or Kenyon— the parents feel they've secured a first- class education for their children, plus a reserved place at the table of the nation's elite. If this family is departing for a state- supported institution— perhaps Florida Atlantic or Michigan State— the journey may be another milestone in their quest for upward mobility, a chance for the next generation to move up a rung or two, or even to the top. In either case, this trip will cost far more than the fuel and tolls.

In fact, for those who have to pay the whole tab, a bachelor's degree from a prestigious private college will set a family back more than a quarter of a million dollars. At this writing, a year's tuition, room, and board at the aforementioned Kenyon College comes to $49,290. (True, some families negotiate discounts on the tuition. But at schools like Kenyon a majority of students are or are close to being full payers.) And this doesn't count books, clothes, off- campus snacks, or a summer course at the University of Perugia, which could add another $10,000.

By comparison, the sticker prices at public colleges seem a bargain. Tuitions for in- state residents range from $4,187 at Florida Atlantic to $11,434 at Michigan State. But room and board and other costs are essentially what they are at private schools. Not to mention a car, sorority dues, and football tickets. Thus four years at Boca Raton or East Lansing can easily top $100,000. Moreover, charges at both public and private colleges have more than doubled— in real dollars— compared with a generation ago. Does this signal that the education being provided is twice as good?

This is serious money, by any standard. For most Americans, educating their offspring will be the second- largest outlay they'll ever make. Only the home mortgage will cost more, and you may live forty years in the house. And if parents can't or won't pay, youngsters can find themselves burdened with a staggering load of loans. Graduating with six figures' worth of debts isn't a high- end horror story— it's becoming increasingly common.

So are colleges and universities giving good value for these investments? And what are families buying? Is it training for high- status professions? Or exposure to new ideas, stimulating teachers, and a chance to flex their intellects? Then there's John Dewey's notion of education as preparation for democratic citizenship. And for those attending a sleepaway school, a safe space where the kids can move toward adulthood. Higher education is a $420 billion industry. What are individuals— and our society as a whole— gaining from it?

The question mark—"?"—in our title is the key to this book, and it will be doing double- duty. As we consider our country's colleges and universities, two questions will recur on every page. The first is how much of what the schools are offering can reasonably be called education? For example, we will show that over half of all undergraduates now enroll in vocational training programs, which range from standbys like nursing and engineering to new arrivals like resort management and fashion merchandising. While we're sure something is imparted in these classes, we're not comfortable calling it education. For us, that designation has to mean more than any instruction coming after the twelfth grade. So enter our second question: even if not vocational, how far can what is being taught and learned reasonably be called higher? In our view, college should be a cultural journey, an intellectual expedition, a voyage confronting new ideas and information, together expanding and deepening our understanding of ourselves and the world. Even on academic tracks, we're not persuaded this is happening. For this reason, we'll be taking a close look at fields commonly called the liberal arts. Higher education should set a high bar for itself. It can be done. We've seen it being done.

Moreover, higher education should be open to every young person, and this is an option we can well afford. We confess to being born- again Jeffersonians: we believe everyone has a mind, the capacity to use it, and is entitled to encouragement. Of course, students have to do their share. But the adults who have chosen higher education as their profession have even greater obligations, which we're not convinced they're fulfilling.

Even after acknowledging the difference between education and training, colleges have embraced enterprises that are neither of the two. Universities have become multiversities, staffed by casts of thousands and dedicated to everything from esoteric research to semi-professional athletics. The result has been a significant bloating of the university's original mission and intentions.

In all this, higher education has much in common with the nation's medical system— or, more truthfully, the absence of anything systemic. In both, the costs keep escalating, as a portion of gross domestic product and individual house hold bud gets. (Just as medical bills are the chief cause of bankruptcies, student loans rank high on personal indebtedness.) In neither sphere does it seem possible for anyone to shout Stop!— whether it's installing another MRI or when a college decides to shift an athletic team to a more costly division. Fear of too- intrusive government and other overblown anxieties prevent anyone in authority from saying either leviathan is not delivering on its promises. Perhaps this is just the American way: part- anarchic, part- chaotic, pasted together and responsible to no one. Still, on the educational side, we think there's much that can be improved and we can do a whole lot better.

There is also the mantra that America's medicine and higher education are the best in the world. And in some ways, that's accurate. But in both cases this refers to advanced research and specialization, not for a night- shift waitress just diagnosed with cancer or a freshman in the twenty- ninth row in Government 101. In our view, to lead the world has to mean doing your best to make your best accessible to everyone.

Here's our vision for higher education. 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, Prince ton's president, speaking at its 2009 commencement: "Prince on 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 Prince ton 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 Prince ton'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.

Since we acknowledge that higher education is so massive and sprawling, we had to decide how much we could responsibly cover in a single book. This is what we decided.

  • Our focus would be on undergraduates seeking bachelor's degrees. Even allowing for high attrition, which we'll be discussing, these candidates are the largest constellation in the higher education universe. So when we refer to community colleges, it will be to focus on how well they usher their students into four- year schools.

  • We decided, after some soul searching, not to separate out the country's fifty-two women's colleges and eighty-five historically black institutions. Or, for that matter, sectarian schools like Yeshiva University in New York, Brigham Young in Utah, or Regent University in Virginia. Plus a host of good colleges under religious auspices, like Augustana in South Dakota and Saint Anselm in New Hampshire. Or our military academies. We respect them all and the roles they play. We simply felt we couldn't do justice to so wide a swath.

  • For- profit colleges— notably Kaplan, Phoenix, and DeVry— are fast- growing newcomers to higher education. In just five years, 2003 to 2008, their numbers grew from 300 to close to 500. Because their students come and go, it's not easy to obtain reliable headcounts, and most are not pursuing degrees. Still, in the years cited, their bachelor's graduates more than doubled, from 31,155 to 70,765, the latter figure comprising 4.6 percent of all such awards. It remains to be seen how employers, graduate schools, and professional licensing bodies will view these degrees. We'll be watching.

This said, we do have a chapter where we will focus on distance learning, where most or all of the work can be done at home or otherwise away from a campus classroom. So we will be reporting on what happens when laptop screens replace a sentient teacher, plus how student participation is affected and performance is assessed. We've tallied what is gained and what is lost. It's our hope that this book and the issues we discuss will encourage debate about this vital sector of our national life.

Our principal premise is that higher education has lost track of its original and enduring purpose: to challenge the minds and imaginations of this nation's young people, to expand their understanding of the world, and thus of themselves. At all too many of our colleges this mission no longer has priority. We will show how our campuses have become preserves for adult careers; how professors, administrators, and, yes, presidents, have used ostensible centers of learning to pursue their own interests and enjoyments.

We believe these turnings can and should be changed. In our view, the first step is to take an unsparing look at what has been happening in the name of an honored calling. That is just what we will do in the chapters that follow.