Higher Education in America

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Higher Education in America is a landmark work—a comprehensive and authoritative analysis of the current condition of our colleges and universities from former Harvard president Derek Bok, one of the nation's most respected education experts. Sweepingly ambitious in scope, this is a deeply informed and balanced assessment of the many strengths as well as the weaknesses of American higher education today. At a time when colleges and universities have never been more important to the lives and opportunities of students or to the progress and prosperity of the nation, Bok provides a thorough examination of the entire system, public and private, from community colleges and small liberal arts colleges to great universities with their research programs and their medical, law, and business schools. Drawing on the most reliable studies and data, he determines which criticisms of higher education are unfounded or exaggerated, which are issues of genuine concern, and what can be done to improve matters.

Some of the subjects considered are long-standing, such as debates over the undergraduate curriculum and concerns over rising college costs. Others are more recent, such as the rise of for-profit institutions and massive open online courses (MOOCs). Additional topics include the quality of undergraduate education, the stagnating levels of college graduation, the problems of university governance, the strengths and weaknesses of graduate and professional education, the environment for research, and the benefits and drawbacks of the pervasive competition among American colleges and universities.

Offering a rare survey and evaluation of American higher education as a whole, this book provides a solid basis for a fresh public discussion about what the system is doing right, what it needs to do better, and how the next quarter century could be made a period of progress rather than decline.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
★ 09/02/2013
It's hard to imagine anyone better equipped to write this book than two-time Harvard president Bok (The Shape of the River), whose experience, professional knowledge, and scrupulous research pervade every page of this eminently readable study of American higher education. Keenly establishing the diversity of higher learning institutions in the early chapters, then addressing professional schools, Bok's comprehensive approach covers an array of rising concerns, including: "our stagnating graduation rates"; attrition in graduate school; the increased importance of research in the sciences; and "the hazards of commercialization." His purview extends from the historic roots of the American college to the impact of technology and expansion to overseas locations. Practical suggestions abound, such as steps colleges can take to improve graduation rates. No aspect of academic professional life is neglected; Bok takes notice that writing letters of recommendation is "a burden on the faculty out of all proportion to any real value served" and of "the emergence of China as a rising powerhouse in science and engineering research." Broad as Bok's scope is, its coherent structure, lucid style, and balanced tone ensure that this important scholarship is also a pleasure to read. It is a book of tremendous long-lasting value. (Sept.)
From the Publisher
"Magisterial."—Stanley Fish, New York Times

"[Higher Education in America is] a magisterial yet often contrarian assessment of challenges facing university governance, teaching, and, indeed, survival."—Jim Sleeper, Huffington Post

"A thought-provoking book that defies political stereotypes. Because of its nuances, the book is a refreshing change from the openly hostile diatribes attacking higher education in recent years."—Peter Sacks, Minding the Campus

"Bok draws on the latest empirical research to set the record straight about systems of governance, undergraduate education, doctoral programs, medical schools, law schools, and business schools, teaching, research, and tenure, tuition, financial aid, affirmative action, the role of government, inter-collegiate athletics, online education, for-profit institutions, and what he calls 'matters of genuine concern.' Comprehensive, judicious, probing, and immensely informative, written for students, parents, and taxpayers as well as 'insiders,' it is one of the best books to appear on this subject in decades."—Glenn Altschuler, Huffington Post

"Monumental. . . . [Bok's] assessment is measured and clear, and we may confidently refer young academics and administrators to Higher Education in America as a primer on current affairs."—Mark Bauerlein, Weekly Standard

"A detailed progress report on the challenges and opportunities facing our nation's colleges and universities. . . . Competition among schools produces benefits and causes problems. Most of the important ones are addressed in Bok's helpful volume. I hope he is right that we already have the ingredients in place to make the necessary reforms. I know we need university leaders like him to help activate those ingredients so that American higher education can continue to contribute in vital ways to our culture, our economy and our polity."—Michael S. Roth, Washington Post

"In the past few years, UK government ministers have paid a lot of attention to the American higher education system, and some new ideas introduced in England, at least, have come directly from the US. Higher Education in America, written by a former president of Harvard University, serves to highlight the similarities between issues we face in the UK with those in the US. . . . Easy to read and comprehensive. . . . A useful overview of the state of US higher education in the early 21st century."—Mary Stuart, Times Higher Education

"Hold on to your mortarboard; [Higher Education in America has] got five fat sections on the state of instruction at the undergrad then graduate level, with umpteen analyses of market forces at each turn, plus five forewords and four afterwords! Despite this daunting breadth, Bok keeps it real."—Katharine Whittemore, Boston Globe

"One theme that I found particularly useful in Higher Education in America is Bok's treatment of undergraduate education and curriculum. Bok underlines the value of a broad university education at every level—for the individual, for the business who hires him or her, and for the society. . . . The book is worth reading carefully by faculty leaders and university administrators as they make their best efforts to enhance the educational effectiveness of their programs."—Daniel Little, Understanding Society blog

"Derek Bok asks all the right questions about higher education, and his experience, research, and staggering intelligence pervade every page. The real value here lies in Bok's thorough examination of some of the most urgent challenges facing higher education—and in his spot-on recommendations for what needs to be done to address these concerns. This is an important book for both academics and families looking at a future in higher education."Grandparents.com

"Highly recommended for education professionals, policy advocates, and the broad public as a thorough and thoughtful examination that assesses strengths and weaknesses and suggests paths to academic improvement."—Elizabeth Hayford, Library Journal starred review

"Derek Bok . . . has a breathtaking grasp of higher education worldwide, and he states his positions in a lucid and learned manner. Moreover, he presents copious evidence to back his assertions so that the reader who wishes to challenge him knows precisely what data support his contentions."—Edward P. Sheridan, PsycCRITIQUES

"With more than two decades of service as president of Harvard University behind him, Derek Bok has views on higher education that must be taken seriously. . . . Now in Higher Education in America, the Harvard professor offers a comprehensive and up-to-date volume that gathers analysis of these and numerous other topics in one place."Choice

"Ambitious and thought-provoking, Higher Education in America represents an informed and informative addition to ongoing debates at the national, state, and institutional levels about the aims higher education ought to aspire to and how best to achieve them."—David M. Brown & John Thelin, Teachers College Record

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780691159140
  • Publisher: Princeton University Press
  • Publication date: 8/25/2013
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 496
  • Sales rank: 518,211
  • Product dimensions: 9.30 (w) x 6.10 (h) x 1.60 (d)

Meet the Author

Derek Bok is the 300th Anniversary University Research Professor at Harvard University. He served as the twenty-fifth president of Harvard from 1971 to 1991, and he served again as interim president from 2006 to 2007. His many books include Our Underachieving Colleges, Universities in the Marketplace, and the acclaimed best seller The Shape of the River: Long-Term Consequences of Considering Race in College and University Admissions (all Princeton).

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Read an Excerpt

Higher Education in America



Copyright © 2013 Princeton University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4008-6612-0



America's initial venture in the realm of higher learning gave no hint of future accomplishments. Nor could the handful of young men who arrived in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in 1638 to enter the nation's first college have had the faintest idea of what the future had in store for American universities. Before the year was out, the head of that tiny institution, Nathaniel Eaton, had been charged with assault for beating a tutor almost to death, while his wife stood accused of serving too little beer to the students and adulterating their food. Master Eaton was eventually dismissed and promptly fled, allegedly taking much of the endowment with him, whereupon the college shut down for an entire academic year.

From these modest beginnings, higher education in the United States has grown to become a vast enterprise comprising some 4,500 different colleges and universities, more than 20 million students, 1.4 million faculty members, and aggregate annual expenditures exceeding 400 billion dollars. Within this system are schools ranging from tiny colleges numbering a few hundred students to huge universities with enrollments exceeding 50,000. For descriptive purposes, however, the system can be broken down into several kinds of institutions, each with its own distinctive aims and characteristics.

Research Universities

Within this category one finds renowned centers of learning such as Columbia, Yale, and Princeton that were founded before the American Revolution; a substantial number of flagship public universities dating back to the nineteenth century; a handful of private institutions, such as Chicago, Stanford, and Cornell, created through the generosity of wealthy industrialists following the Civil War; and a few newcomers like Brandeis and the University of California, San Diego, that were begun after World War II.

Although there are only approximately two hundred research universities, they account for a large majority of the PhDs awarded, most of the degrees granted in law and medicine, and more than a quarter of all the students in the entire system. The most prominent—say the top sixty or so—dominate the national and international rankings, award at least half of the PhDs, and receive the greater part of the billions of dollars spent each year by the federal government on academic research. They have the largest budgets, the biggest endowments, the best professional schools, and the most extensive libraries. Most of their colleges accept less than half of the students who apply for admission. A few are extremely selective, turning away several applicants for every one they admit.

Comprehensive Universities

There are more than seven hundred so-called comprehensive universities offering a wide variety of professional master's and doctoral programs while also carrying on at least a modest amount of research. Many are public and have large undergraduate enrollments. Their student bodies are diverse, with higher percentages of commuters, ethnic minorities, part-time students, and adults over thirty years of age than one would normally find attending a major research university. They are rarely very selective in their admissions policies. Instead, they typically accept most of those who apply, and their students tend to have significantly lower high school grade-point averages and college admission test scores than those enrolled in the research universities.

Many comprehensives evolved from technical colleges or from normal schools that trained teachers for the public schools. Now that they have grown in size and have mounted a wide variety of vocationally oriented degree programs, they have sometimes struggled to define their distinctive mission. A few have managed to become research universities. Many more that are located in cities have identified themselves as "metropolitan universities," with special responsibilities to serve the needs of their surrounding urban area. As such, they concentrate on offering programs to match the employment opportunities in their city and its environs. Much of their research is oriented toward the practical problems of local employers, government agencies, and community organizations. In addition, they frequently offer a variety of special services for local public schools, community colleges, small businesses, and other entities that can benefit from their expertise and technical assistance.

Four-Year Colleges

A very different group are the almost one thousand, mainly private, nonprofit colleges. 4 Some are more than two hundred years old and were begun under the sponsorship of a religious denomination. They tend to be much smaller than research or comprehensive universities, enrolling, in all, only two percent of undergraduates. A century ago, most of these colleges would have concentrated primarily or even exclusively on the liberal arts. As more and more young people have come to college to prepare for a career, private colleges have found it necessary to offer vocational programs in order to attract enough students to survive. Only a minority still award more than half of their undergraduate degrees to liberal arts majors, and no more than twenty-five are exclusively devoted to this form of education.

A few private colleges, such as Amherst and Williams, attract outstanding students and offer an education of the highest quality. With more applicants than they can accept and substantial endowments contributed by grateful alumni, they are highly successful and financially secure. Once one moves beyond these fortunate few, however, the situation changes dramatically. Most of the remaining private colleges are hard-pressed to compete for undergraduates with state-subsidized public universities that charge much lower tuitions. Many constantly struggle to balance the books, and scores of them over the past fifty years have had to give up the fight and close their doors.

Community Colleges

Beyond universities and private four-year colleges are more than one thousand two-year, nonprofit community colleges. All but approximately eighty-five are public, supported by state and local funds. Together, they account for more than 40 percent of all undergraduate enrollments.

The community college movement began early in the twentieth century chiefly as a means to accommodate students who wanted a BA degree but needed a lower-cost school close to home that they could attend for two years before transferring to a four-year college. Although many community colleges had long offered job training as well as liberal arts programs, it was only after World War II that vocational education began to attract a majority of the students enrolled. By now, in addition to liberal arts courses, most community colleges offer a wide variety of vocational degree programs along with shorter courses, often developed in cooperation with nearby employers, that train students for specific jobs.

In contrast to the faculties of four-year institutions, only a small minority of those teaching in community colleges are PhDs. In earlier decades, most of their instructors came to them from high school teaching. Increasing numbers now come from industry, bringing practical skills they can teach to students in vocational programs. Most of these instructors are only part-time and either hold other jobs of a different kind or piece together several part-time teaching assignments at different educational institutions.

Community colleges have enjoyed a boom over the past several decades. From 1963 to 2006, their enrollments grew by 740 percent compared with approximately 200 percent growth for four-year colleges. Together, community colleges currently enroll over seven million students attending for credit. In keeping with the American ideal of opportunity for all, they offer a chance at a college education to many people who might not otherwise enroll. In doing so, they attract students who, if anything, are even more diverse in age, ethnicity, and ambition than those of the typical metropolitan university. Sixty percent of students who enroll attend part-time, and 80 percent have full-or part-time jobs. Forty-five percent are minorities and 42 percent are first-generation college students. Many arrive lacking basic skills in reading, writing, and mathematics and are required to take remedial courses and complete them successfully before they can begin taking regular classes for credit.

There is a continuing debate over whether community colleges increase or diminish the number of students who eventually earn a BA degree. For some, the chance to enroll in a nearby, inexpensive community college undoubtedly makes it possible to begin undergraduate studies and then move on to a four-year college and earn a BA degree. Yet graduation rates are low, even when one takes account of the academic background of those who enter. Many students who could have qualified for a four-year college but elected to start their postsecondary education in a community college never transfer, often because they receive inadequate counseling, or are turned off by indifferently taught courses, or are diverted into vocational classes that do not qualify for credit at a four-year college. In all, only some 20–25 percent of those who enroll in a community college eventually transfer to a four-year institution, many fewer than the two-thirds or more who claim an intention to do so when they enter. Whether more students would have enrolled in a four-year college and earned a degree had community colleges not existed is a question hotly debated but still unresolved.

For-Profit Institutions

Beyond the several categories mentioned above lies a large and growing for-profit sector composed of more than thirteen hundred schools. Roughly half of these give college degrees; the rest are two-year colleges or institutions that grant certificates signifying completion of a training program for a specific occupation such as cosmetology or the culinary arts. For-profits chiefly offer vocational instruction, especially for older students seeking to prepare themselves for higher-paying jobs. Collectively, they award approximately 10 percent of all college degrees.

While most for-profits are small proprietary schools, a few are huge, with tens of thousands, even hundreds of thousands of students. The largest fifteen alone enroll almost 60 percent of all students in the entire for-profit sector. With branches in a number of states and even overseas, these mega-universities have constituted the fastest-growing segment in the entire higher education system, both in traditional face-to-face classes and in online instruction.* Over the past two years, however, enrollments at these institutions have leveled off or declined following "a steady drumroll of negative publicity about the sector's recruiting abuses, low graduation rates and high default rates [on student loans]."

Unlike public universities and most private, nonprofit institutions, for-profits rely almost entirely on tuition payments as a source of revenue. Since the vast majority of their students have modest incomes, they are heavily subsidized by Pell Grants and educational loans from the federal government. In 2008–9, although for-profits accounted for less than 10 percent of total undergraduate enrollments, their students were awarded 24 percent of all Pell Grants and 26 percent of federally guaranteed loans while incurring larger debts than nonprofit students.

For-profit universities rarely compete directly with liberal arts colleges or research universities. Their typical student is older, part-time, often employed and intent on acquiring the skills to qualify for a higher-paying job. By cutting costs, providing year-round education, renting space, and doing without research, athletics, extracurricular activities, and other nonessential amenities and services, for-profits can charge a tuition well below that of most private nonprofit colleges and still earn a tidy surplus. The best of them offer convenient locations, schedule classes in the evenings and on weekends to accommodate working students, and devote much effort to placing their graduates and keeping their courses closely aligned with opportunities in the job market. They have aggressively pursued online instruction, providing added convenience for working adults who find it difficult to travel to classes. By concentrating on serving the needs of their older, vocationally oriented students as effectively and efficiently as possible, they offer a welcome alternative for many individuals who might otherwise attend a community college or not enroll at all.

Despite these accomplishments, the record of the for-profits is not unblemished. While some of them seem to perform well, others have high dropout rates and limited success in helping students find the jobs for which they have ostensibly been trained. They are extremely aggressive in recruiting students, sometimes spending more on expanding their enrollments than they do on instruction. A few have accepted applicants with very low prospects of graduating or finding a desirable job. A recent investigation by the General Accounting Office found that each of the fifteen for-profits it examined had engaged in deceptive practices or made misleading statements in its effort to enlist as many applicants as possible.

Once enrolled in a for-profit college, many students drop out before completing their studies. Thereafter, they default on their educational loans at a much higher rate than their counterparts in any other type of college. Six years after entering a for-profit institution, students are more likely to be unemployed and out of school than students of similar qualifications who entered not-for-profit institutions. Their average earnings tend to be 8–9 percent lower. For the federal government, therefore, whose student grants and guaranteed loans provide most of the revenue received by the larger for-profits, this segment of the higher education system represents a mixed blessing.


Throughout most of its history, American higher education has differed in several respects from the university systems of other advanced industrial democracies. While the differences have narrowed in recent years, they are still sufficiently important to give our system a special flavor. Much of what is most praiseworthy about higher education in this country (as well as much that is troubling) can be linked in one way or another to these distinctive characteristics.

Diversity of Institutions

America's colleges and universities are unusually numerous and diverse. Most of them are private, although collectively they enroll only 20 percent of all students. Some institutions are tiny, numbering only a few hundred students, while others are very large, with enrollments of fifty thousand or more. Some have very limited resources while others have huge budgets and multibillion-dollar endowments. Many are stand-alone colleges, but others are much larger universities containing a wide variety of graduate and professional schools. A few colleges (about 10 percent) are truly selective in the sense that they attract a much larger number of applicants than they can admit. The rest accept at least a majority, and many take virtually all those who apply. Some private colleges and universities are connected to religious denominations but most are not. The vast majority are coeducational, but a handful enroll only women. Still others are almost exclusively attended by black students or Native Americans. More than one thousand specialize in a single field of study such as business, the arts, or allied health professions, while others offer scores of different programs. Within such a varied array, almost any student can find a college that caters to a particular special interest, such as the performing arts, or foreign languages, or conservative religious values.


Excerpted from Higher Education in America by DEREK BOK. Copyright © 2013 Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission of PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

Preface to the Revised Edition ix
Acknowledgments xi

Introduction 1
Part I The Context
Foreword (I) 7
Chapter One The American System of Higher Education 9
Chapter Two Purposes, Goals, and Limits to Growth 28
Chapter Three The Governance of Nonprofit Universities 44
Afterword (I) 72
Part II Undergraduate Education
Foreword (II) 77
Chapter Four Going to College and Earning a Degree 81
Chapter Five Paying for College: The Challenge for Policy-Makers and Academic Leaders 98
Chapter Six Entering the Right College 122
Chapter Seven The Expanding Audience for Higher Education 145
Chapter Eight What to Learn 166
Chapter Nine How to Teach 183
Chapter Ten Prospects for Reform 201
Afterword (II) 220
Chapter Eleven Graduate Education
Part III Professional Education
Foreword (III) 249
Chapter Twelve Medical Schools 256
Chapter Thirteen Law Schools 271
Chapter Fourteen Business Schools 287
Afterword (III) 306
Part IV Research
Foreword (IV) 321
Chapter Fifteen "Publish or Perish" 328
Chapter Sixteen The Changing Nature of Scientific Research 342
Chapter Seventeen The Environment for Research 358
Afterword (IV) 377
Part V A Final Reckoning
Foreword (V) 383
Chapter Eighteen Matters of Genuine Concern 387
The Last Word 408

Notes 413
Index 453

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