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The Ever-Higher Cost of Higher Education

A critique of American universities questions the worth of the old college try.

Higher Education book review

— Times Books

If you can afford to plunk down the cash to buy a Lexus — and do it each September for four years running — you're probably not flipping out about sending your kid to college. But even bottomless moneybags hate rip-offs, which is close to the way many renowned American universities come off in Higher Education? How Colleges Are Wasting Our Money and Failing Our Kids — And What We Can Do About It.

The authors — Andrew Hacker, a political science professor at the City University of New York, and Claudia Dreifus, a New York Times contributing writer who teaches at Columbia University — are out to spread itching powder beneath the robes of academe. "The American way of higher education puts a premium on prestige," they opine, "making a fetish of brand names and using price as a guarantor of quality." This $420 billion industry, they write, has proliferated to the tune of 4,352 educational franchises nationwide, yet somewhere during that growth spurt it lost track of its original purpose: "to challenge the minds and imaginations of this nation's young people, to expand their understanding of the world, and thus of themselves."

The question mark in the book's title is designed to cast doubt on the value proposition of today's conventional, and costly, college experience. Many of the book's jabs — at professors who shun teaching, at the "intercollegiate arms race" waged over cushy student amenities such as recreational climbing walls and specialized cafeteria food — are familiar. But Hacker and Dreifus have also done enough new research to fire some jarring blasts at formerly unassailable brands.

Take Princeton. A survey of its Class of 1973 found that not a single alumnus had served in a cabinet or sub-cabinet position, in Congress, as a federal judge, or as a CFO or CEO of any major national company. Or take Harvard, where full professors pull down an average annual salary of $192,600, for which some of them teach only one course per year. The sinking prestige of classroom instruction, claim Hacker and Dreifus, is subverting undergraduate education nationwide. For starters, professors — particularly those who have earned the protective shield of tenure — identify more with far-flung colleagues in their disciplines than they do with the supposed "learning community" in which they are embedded. And these "teachers" — researchers, really — propose increasingly recondite subjects as courses simply because those happen to be the ones they are pursuing for their latest journal article or book.

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