Higher Education?: How Colleges Are Wasting Our Money and Failing Our Kids---and What We Can Do About It

Higher Education?: How Colleges Are Wasting Our Money and Failing Our Kids---and What We Can Do About It

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by Andrew Hacker, Claudia Dreifus

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A quarter of a million dollars. It's the going tab for four years at most top-tier colleges. Why does it cost so much and is it worth it?

In this provocative investigation, the renowned sociologist Andrew Hacker and New York Times writer Claudia Dreifus make an incisive case that the American way of higher education—now a $420 billion-per-year

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A quarter of a million dollars. It's the going tab for four years at most top-tier colleges. Why does it cost so much and is it worth it?

In this provocative investigation, the renowned sociologist Andrew Hacker and New York Times writer Claudia Dreifus make an incisive case that the American way of higher education—now a $420 billion-per-year business—has lost sight of its primary mission: the education of our young people. They probe the true performance of the Ivy League, the baleful influence of tenure, an unhealthy reliance on part-time teachers, and supersized bureaucracies which now have lives of their own.

Hacker and Dreifus take readers from Princeton and Harvard to Evergreen State, revealing those institutions that need to adjust their priorities and others that are getting it right, proving that learning can be achieved—and at a much more reasonable price. Higher Education? is a wake-up call and a call to arms.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Hacker, author of Two Nations: Black and White, Separate, Hostile, Unequal, and Dreifus, who teaches in Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs, scathingly discuss the current state of American colleges and universities and argue that tenure and sabbaticals are outdated institutions that cost too much and serve poorly. The authors also claim that the cost of some schools and programs (medicine; sports) far outweighs the gain; teaching is a low priority, they say, blaming administration, committees, and amenities for the spiraling costs of Bachelor's degrees. Though they fail to mention how employment trends might affects students' choices, they do provide some suggestions for cost-cutting: reduce sports and travel of teams, kill tenure and reduce sabbaticals and research, and make medical schools and research centers independent institutions. While some good ideas can be pulled from the polemic, readers will be left waiting for a cool-headed, logical examination of our major institutions of learning. (Aug.)
USA Today
[A] blistering attack on American colleges and universities... Don't read this book the night before you drive the little darling to that pricey private college, because you might cancel the trip.
The New York Times
Andrew Hacker and Claudia Dreifus have written a lucid, passionate and wide-ranging book on the state of American higher education and what they perceive as its increasing betrayal of its primary mission. . . . In a series of well-structured and strongly argued chapters, the book [poses] searching and sometimes troubling questions.
The Wall Street Journal
A powerful indictment of academic careerism. The authors are not shy about making biting judgments along the way… Higher education may be heading for a reckoning.
The Washington Post
Andrew Hacker and Claudia Dreifus lay out the indictment of the nonprofit establishment in their eye-opening new book, Higher Education?
The Bottom Line: Hacker and Dreifus offer one of the best critiques yet of what is wrong and right about college in America today.
The Daily Beast
A damning indictment of our colleges and universities you can't afford not to read. . . . Hacker and Dreifus have reignited the debate over what exactly we expect from a college degree.
The New Republic
Andrew Hacker and Claudia Dreifus have written a scathing populist attack on higher education that has something for everyone…[They] communicate in a clear, direct and lively manner.
Chicago Daily Observer
Until now no one has deconstructed the entire college and university system from the Ivy League to TV-touted trade schools, which Andrew Hacker and Claudia Dreifus have just done in a new, brief volume that makes hamburger out of a herd of academia's sacred cows.
The Atlantic.com
American students are being neglected by celebrity professors, shortchanged by rising tuitions, and led astray by college football… [Higher Education? is] a fierce critique of modern academia.
Tucson Citizen
A wake-up call to alert both parents and students to the soaring cost of higher education in America and the steps that must be taken if it is become more accessible and affordable.
Tulsa World
Compelling… Hacker and Dreifus are determined to challenge conventional wisdom and shake up the educational establishment. Higher Education? has the great virtue of challenging the status quo complacency inside academia. They are right to put a question mark in the title of their book… Impressive.
Reuters/The New York Times
The book recommends colleges focus on education and strip away sports programs, trim bloated administrative budgets and spin off research and medical facilities.
A thoughtful assessment.
author of Nickel and Dimed and Bright-Sided Barbara Ehrenreich
Ordinarily, I wouldn't expect any truly smart, beautifully researched, groundbreaking new book to eventually find its way into college reading lists. But Higher Education? may be the exception. It's a courageous indictment of our system of higher education itself — with its outrageous costs and diminishing promise of a secure future for those who have the stamina to graduate. I am grateful to Andrew Hacker and Claudia Dreifus for daring to say what needs to be said.
author of The Death and Life of the Great American Diane Ravitch
Higher Education? is the most informative and readable book on the subject that I have ever read. Writing in a lively and engaging style, Andrew Hacker and Claudia Dreifus demystify a subject that is usually cloaked in academic jargon. Their analysis is sharp and their solutions to the problem of the escalating cost of higher education are sensible. I recommend this book to everyone who cares about the quality and accessibility of college education.
author of Savage Inequalities and Letters to a You Jonathan Kozol
Andrew Hacker and Claudia Dreifus are sure to stir a badly needed uproar in the world of higher education. They make their argument so gracefully, with so much mischievous delight and understated humor, and undergirded by so broad a base of data and compelling reportage, that even the most furious defenders of the status quo will not be able to ignore this book and the outrage it most certainly will stir.
Nobel laureate in economics Joseph E. Stiglitz
A timely and provocative book about a subject that affects all of us. Higher Education? is a thoroughly researched and welcome addition to the debate.
Vartan Gregorian
Higher Education? stands out with facts, figures, and probing analysis. Andrew Hacker and Claudia Dreifus clearly lay out why so many colleges and universities are helping to support a de facto American class system while failing their primary mission of preparing not only skilled labor but also producing educated, knowledgeable citizens who can play a role advancing our national life and strengthening our democracy. This is a thought-provoking book that I hope will generate serious national debate.
The Rev. Theodore M. Hesburgh
Higher Education? raises piercing questions about how a respected sector of our society is failing our young people. Andrew Hacker and Claudia Dreifus unsparingly show where our colleges and universities have lost their principles and purpose. This book will spark a national debate that has been lacking, but is nonetheless essential.
Steven Knapp
Andrew Hacker and Claudia Dreifus have written a lucid, passionate and wide-ranging book on the state of American higher education and what they perceive as its increasing betrayal of its primary mission—for them, the teaching of undergraduates. That both are academics—one a well-known professor (Mr. Hacker) and the other consigned to the adjunct, or what they call "contingent," faculty…provides them with memorable, often acerbic anecdotes…These anecdotes take the edge off the polemical intensity a reader might expect from the book's title…
—The New York Times

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Holt, Henry & Company, Inc.
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First Edition
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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.

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Higher Education?: How Colleges Are Wasting Our Money and Failing Our Kids---and What We Can Do About It 3.6 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 18 reviews.
MikeSacken-TCU More than 1 year ago
I have been teaching & administering in universities for 30 years, and this book was a disturbing read. I expected to accumulate counterpoints or even amass a coherent negation of the argument. But as I read, the weight of their portrait of a system lost & self-serving [vs. serving] overwhelmed me. The authors offered plenty of examples of people and institutions attempting to provide excellent undergraduate education, but in the main, such were the exception. I stopped worrying about the exceptions or quibbles and accepted the basic argument. At the heart is a moral claim: our universities have diminished or discounted the task of educating young adults in pursuit of many alternatives. I have no reason to argue otherwise. I recommend this book, wonderfully written and argued, for parents and prospective college students - it could be a frightening read, but the authors offer some alternatives and modest hope. As for the folks in academia, I'd expect many will despise the book and argue each point, while discounting the whole (sometimes, the devil isn't in the details), but so much the worse for us. Can we argue on the whole, across this complex and varied system, that undergraduate students are at the center of our institutions or academic work?
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This book is chock-full of facts about university president salaries, the money made (or not made) from college athletics, how admissions really works and so on. The authors analyze the business of college education and return on investment, which can't really be done in a short book like this but do keep you entertained. They list their Top 10 Favorite Colleges (and why, after researching for this book for several years) and the last chapter is their recommendations for how Higher Education could be better. Having worked in both the for-profit sector and higher education, I agree with some points here about the pace and culture and opportunities for making the undergraduate experience better; however, the authors don't acknowledge many positive changes that are already being made or present a realistic action plan. I would love to see this made into a movie so it could reach a huge audience of Americans, with the higher education officials able to present their side of the story since in many ways universities are run like a very tight ship, scrutinized more heavily than for-profit businesses. While the U.S. stock and real estate markets can collapse, universities operate conservatively since the principal in their endowments is not spent. Any parent or student about to choose a college and commit to student loans will likely find this book a good read. I also think this is a great book for boards of trustees and other university donors who can seize their opportunity to make a difference when they choose the projects to be funded or become priorities. For instance, the authors feel that adjunct instructors should make the same amount of money per class taught as full-time professors. Should a donor feel strongly about this, he or she could choose to direct a gift to such a purpose instead of a new facility or scholarships. The private sector has an ability and responsibility to keep universities focused on their missions. Overall this book gets you thinking - but there are two sides of the story.
William_Bassin More than 1 year ago
This is a book that ought to be read by anyone who has a love for higher education in the U.S., as the authors clearly do. U.S. higher education is well regarded across the world and has many virtues. But the authors show that its affordability, especially to lower income students, is diminishing rapidly. They also document a number of issues which render it much less effective than it might be. Among them are: 1) the over emphasis on doctoral programs and generating publications at the expense of undergraduate teaching, 2) the ever increasing levels of "amenities," 3) tenure practices which lead to uniformity of ideas in institutions supposedly dedicated to intellectual originality, 4) the shameful treatment afforded to adjuncts, 5) the emphasis on professionalized sports, and 6) the overarching obsession with money. They also have some penetrating observations (backed by survey evidence) about the under-performance of even our "elite" institutions. The authors present a variety of ideas for dealing with these issues. It takes courage to suggest changes in venerable, well entrenched institutions. The authors deserve a great deal of credit for helping to bring a necessary debate out of the shadows.
Ianbooks More than 1 year ago
Once upon a time, higher education was seen as a public good in the US. Public universities, from CCNY to Michigan to the University of California, saw their mission as creating an educated population at low or no cost. That vision is now on life-support, as the top-down, profit-centered corporate model of education mirrors the inequalities of the larger society, with million-dollar salaries for some college presidents and ever-expanding administrative and research budgets, while students are taught by "wandering scholar" adjuncts. Hacker and Dreifus know their subject and lay it out for all to see.
DonnaKelsh More than 1 year ago
Critical reading for parents, students, educators and a public who is concerned about higher education. This bold and informative book raises thought proking questions and will, hopefully, stir the pot. Donna Kelsh
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Rimple More than 1 year ago
It was overly simplistic and useless, as far as I am concerned. The thing that really bugged me was their approach to education as just another commodity. These two authors whine for 300 pages about the colleges selling us, the customers, a bad product for a lot of money. Well, if it were that simple.. it's a free market system, people. If a school found a way to offer great education on a cheap, they'd be swamped with applications. To capitalize on that success, those colleges would increase their enrollment. Then their classes would become overcrowded, they would have to initiate new construction (money!) and they would have to hire more cheap faculty (to keep the costs down), probably new PhDs from those "PhD factories". Many of those suckers may not be native English speakers, but that doesn't mean that they can't speak decent English, by the way (those two white New Yorkers are real snobs that way, bordering on racist).