About Me

Ithaca, New York
MWF, now officially 42, loves long walks on the beach and laughing with friends ... oh, wait. By day, I'm a mid-level university administrator reluctant to be more specific on a public forum. Nights and weekends, though, I'm a homebody with strong nerdist leanings. I'm never happier than when I'm chatting around the fire, playing board games, cooking up some pasta, and/or road-tripping with my family and friends. I studied psychology and then labor economics in school, and I work in higher education. From time to time I get smug, obsessive, or just plain boring about some combination of these topics, especially when inequality, parenting, or consumer culture are involved. You have been warned.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

#41: 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 (New York: Times Books, 2010)

"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 of what really happens on campus today, the renowned sociologist Andrew Hacker and the 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. Going behind the myths and mantras, they probe the true performance of the Ivy League, the baleful influence of tenure, an unhealthy reliance on part-time teachers, and supersized bureaucracies that now have lives of their own.

"As Hacker and Dreifus call for a thorough overhaul of a self-indulgent system, they take readers on a road trip from Princeton and Harvard to Evergreen State and Florida Gulf Coast University, revealing those faculties and institutions that need to adjust their priorities and others that are getting it right, proving that teaching and learning can be achieved -- and at a much more reasonable price.

"For parents wondering if they're getting fair value for their tuition dollars, for students who sense that they are an afterthought to professors and administrators, and for citizens concerned about America's ability to foster innovation and compete in an ever more challenging world, Higher Education? is a wake-up call and a call to arms."

Table of Contents:
  • Introduction: Higher Education?
Part 1: What Went Wrong?
  • The World of the Professoriate
  • Administrative Overload
  • Contingent Education
Part 2: Ideals and Illusions
  • The Golden Dozen
  • Teaching: Good, Great, Abysmal
  • The Triumph of Training
Part 3: Some Immodest Proposals
  • Why College Costs So Much
  • Fireproof: The Tangled Issue of Tenure
  • The Athletics Incubus
  • Student Bodies
Part 4: Facing the Future
  • Visiting the Future in Florida
  • The College Crucible: Add Students and Stir
  • Schools We Like -- Our Top Ten List
My Take:
Not expecting to like this one, maybe 'cause I've been one of the bloated administrators the book's going to rail about for most of my career and expect it will hit too close to home. We shall see.

End verdict: Flawed, yes, but much better and less polemic than I was expecting. While there is indeed a chapter on the bloating of college administrative staff in recent decades which questions the necessity of many of the newest additions (registrar, yes; "assistant student success coordinator" and the like, not so much), this isn't the authors' main point. What is is a fairly controversial one: The tenure system, as it currently stands, drives the cost of college education way up without doing much to directly benefit the undergrads whose tuition (at least in part) pays faculty salaries. Lifetime tenure + profs who (in some cases) teach only 2-3 classes per year + generous sabbaticals = the bulk of student course-hours, and nearly all large intro-level classes at many schools, end up taught by adjuncts or grad students anyway. Moreover, Hacker and Dreifus argue that most faculty research contributes little to undergrad education; rather, it tends to be so arcane and specialized that you need to be a grad student (or perhaps a bright upper-level undergrad) to understand it anyway.

I'm not sure I buy all the authors' arguments about the sorry state of modern undergrad education; at least not to the extent that they're advanced here. The too many entitled profs teaching too few courses, too many indentured adjuncts teaching for poverty-level wages argument is interesting, as is the chapter on college athletics (too costly, with too little benefit for either the students or institution) and the one on the "Golden Dozen" (the Ivy League, Stanford, Duke, Amherst, and Williams) and why these schools are neither the only nor a surefire ticket to a successful, lucrative future. But their attack on "training," i.e., colleges offering and students electing anything more than a classical liberal arts education, seems over the top. I'll concede that some specialized schools and majors may be overly narrow, and not worth shelling out $50,000 per year for. But to lump all non-liberal arts majors in this camp seems a bit much. Engineering and architecture, for example, aren't quite the same as (say) fashion merchandising or resort management. Sure, it's possible in any of these cases that a student who choses a specialized major at 18 will decide a year or 2 later that it's not really for her ... but I'm not sure more philosophy and English majors are really the answer here. A generation or 2, 18 or 19 was considered plenty old enough to choose either college or a job, and start trying to make a living. Yes, changes in the economy have made the straight-to-work route far less viable, but I don't know that this justifies postponing the selection of a profession or academic interest still further. Besides, the anti-training bias seems to directly contradict the authors' argument against many of the frills that drive up the price tag of college (moving away from home to live in the dorms, fancy food courts and fitness centers, et al.) If one way to keep college costs manageable is to axe those frills that don't contribute directly to an undergrad's degree, is it unreasonable to want that degree to be worth something and help you get a decent, non-dead-end job when your four years are done?

Also, the authors' closing Top Ten list of schools they like seems random at best, and disingenuous at worst. Arizona State University makes the list even though it's guilty of some pretty egregious adjunct exploitation, and their undergrad education doesn't seem to be all that remarkable ... because they make a positive economic contribution to an otherwise-depressed region of the country, even though the authors have complained in multiple other places about colleges offering institutes for the study of this, that, or the other thing but not actually instructing students. MIT also makes the list because it pays its adjuncts particularly well, with the explicit suggestion that other colleges should be able to do the same ... even though MIT has a tremendous endowment and far more resources than the vast majority of colleges.

For a more detailed review I mostly agree with, check out Richard Kahlenberg's piece in The New Republic. Worth a read, but best to borrow and not buy this one -- especially as I don't think it'll stand the test of time.

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