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 40 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.
Excerpted from the book 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, published in August by Times Books, an imprint of Henry Holt and Company, LLC. Copyright © 2010 by Andrew Hacker and Claudia Dreifus. All rights reserved. (Read an interview with coauthor Claudia Dreifus.)