High Hopes, Major Disappointment

Critiques of higher education and college admission come fast and furious these days. Some, like Walter McMahon’s Higher Learning, Greater Good and Jerome Karabel’s The Chosen, are terrific and passionate looks at what colleges could and should be and how they have gotten that way. Others, like David Kirp’s Shakespeare, Einstein, and the Bottom Line are sober examinations of how university life has changed under the influence of economic forces. Each of these books draws the reader into the esoteric world of academia but also touches on issues of class, power, “gatekeeping,” and the role of higher education in a democratic society.

Unfortunately, Andrew Hacker and Claudia Dreifus’s new book, Higher Education?: How Colleges Are Wasting Our Money and Failing Our Kids–and What We Can Do About It is not one of those books. It is a badly sewn-together hatchet job that, instead of providing new ideas and viewpoints for discussion, relies on tired arguments and worn out examples to make observations that most people have known for years: tenure is bad, colleges spend too much on “frills,” not enough attention is paid to the liberal arts, there’s a difference between “education” and “training” and colleges should be doing the former, and so on. Coming from a sharp-eyed thinker like Hacker, this is all especially depressing. And as so often happens, the “what we can do about it” section is remarkable for its lack of originality or depth.

One major premise of the book is that colleges and universities are spending too much time, money, and effort on non-educational aspects such as athletics, luxurious dorms and student centers, and so on. Another is that tenured professors who hang around long past their expiration date are not only not teaching (or teaching badly from yellowed notes) but also taking up space and salaries that could be used to hire energetic younger faculty. But neither of these premises is a revelation; they’ve been covered in Time, Newsweek, the Chronicle of Higher Education, and any number of books and articles about the problems of higher education. Reading each chapter I kept expecting the authors to relate all these truisms and finish off with some surprise, but each one fell flat, without offering anything new about the topics.

Hacker and Dreifus take a stab at defending “education” in the liberal arts tradition versus “training” but have little to say about it other than this,: “…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.” As it happens, I agree with them, but a statement is not a defense, it’s simply a self-evident truth. But without a clear idea of what they think being well educated is, we have no way of clearly understanding why varsity athletics or million dollar dorms infringe on academics. And when they say that “the purpose of college is not to make students into better citizens,” I have to wonder what exactly they think the purpose of college is. I read the book in vain looking for an answer.

The closest they come could have been written by anyone: “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 poise at adulthood, which can and will continue throughout their lives.” This is boilerplate, not a startling discovery, and adds absolutely nothing to the ongoing “conversation” about higher education and its role in our lives now.

Of all the usual and often suggested solutions for making college “better” the most interesting is to get professors to teach and stop producing more and more abstruse “scholarship.” It’s a commonplace to say that most of what’s written in the academy these days seems to be written only for others in the same small subject area and that it drains the life out of scholarship. So even though it’s a challenge, it feels more like a water balloon than a bomb.

Throughout the book, Hacker and Dreifus wheel out the same tired examples of crazy course names, obscure job titles, and overloaded administrations. They lament the overuse of overworked and underpaid adjuncts (although they later on praise a college that uses them to a fault), and do a ritual whipping of what they call “The Golden Dozen,” ivy league and a few other schools that, if you can believe it, trade more on image than reality. They quote an obligatory number of students and others to illustrate their points and use data to show how costs have risen without reason, and so on, but deja vu dominates. We’ve heard this all before; when are you going to tell us something new?

Unfortunately, they never get around to it. There’s a chapter entitled “The Athletics Incubus” that addresses myths and realities of campus athletics that have been well studied and another called “Student Bodies” that presents the changes in student demographics but offers no revelations or even startling interpretations of existing facts. More women than men on college campuses? Who knew? Weirdly, Hacker and Dreifus spend a whole chapter on Florida Gulf Coast University, with a tone that suggests they can’t really decide whether the distance learning it promotes is a good or bad thing. But they do seem to think that the low cost of using technology somehow makes up for the outrageous expense of attending “The Golden Dozen.” The whole chapter reads like watching a teeter-totter.

Most distressing, the book’s penultimate chapter is entitled “Schools We Like–Our Top Ten List.” It includes Ole Miss, Berea, Arizona State and MIT, making the whole exercise simply an expression of arbitrariness, not the culmination of a reasoned and solidly built argument. The randomness of the list exposes the creakiness of the book–in the descriptions of the institutions we don’t have a sense that we’re reading about schools that truly educate, just that they are one the authors happen to like and that got pulled out of a hat. Are these the only ones that deserve to be listed? Why have a list at all?

The “Coda” chapter claims to provide the activities “we” can participate in to make our colleges better, but they are once again threadbare and in some cases, simply puzzling. “Make students use their minds” is one’ “engage all students” is another. Well, thank you very much. End tenure–a nonstarter; “Demand that the Golden Dozen Deliver”–us and what army? A flaccid end to an ill-conceived book.

Professor Hacker is known for taking strong stands on issues that matter and using good data to support them. Here, he and his coauthor have simply hoisted easy targets and shot them down with little more than a lot of hot air. A surprising and major disappointment about a topic that deserves much better.

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About Will Dix

I am currently writing a book about college admission. I'm interested in the intersection of the college process and American culture. I attended Amherst College in the 1970s, taught high school English and theater at The Hill School in the '80s, returned to Amherst in the '90s as an admission dean, and began the '00s as a college counselor at the University of Chicago Laboratory School. I then joined Chicago Scholars as Program Director. Currently, I blog about college admission for Forbes.com. I also help community organizations serving low income students understand the college admission process so more students can consider gaining access to higher education. I have a few private college counseling clients that I take by referral only. The views expressed in this blog are mine alone.
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