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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? unearths professors who boast of arbitrarily assigning students too much reading. But when the book describes the "predicament" of college students loath to avail themselves of professors' scanty office hours lest they "waste" the time of great minds, the authors' argument gets hard to swallow. Could Hacker and Dreifus truly be unaware of "helicopter parents," hovering over professors to demand that they lavish more time and attention on their precious charges?

How did college get so pricey? The graduate teaching assistant who’s handling your introductory sociology class might blame it on "the intrinsic nature of a bureaucracy to propagate itself." And she or he would have a legitimate point, for the ratio of campus bureaucrats to students has doubled since 1980. Corporate-executive-style compensation levels for superstar campus presidents have hyperinflated tuition bills, too; Elwood Gordon Gee of Ohio State University, Nicholas Zeppos of Vanderbilt University and Shirley Ann Jackson of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute all command million-dollar pay packages.

If Hacker and Dreifus were education czars, they would surely reshape the American campus. But some of their ukases hold more water than others:

1) Subordinate pure research to practical teaching. Achieving this goal would benefit the "undergraduate consumer," to be sure, but where would it leave campus-based researchers on track to cure cancer? One of the "off-label uses" for campus research that emerged from the recent BP disaster, for example, came when fistfuls of Gulf-area college professors suddenly began weighing in with oil-containment strategies they had been pursuing as pure research projects for years.

2) Abolish tenure. The authors contend that it no longer serves its original purpose: to safeguard academic freedom. It should therefore be replaced, they say, by five- to seven-year teaching contracts and cash incentives for earlier retirement.

3) Spend less money ginning up football and basketball fever. Risking coming across as killjoy critics of the sports fandom that boosts colleges' visibility (and, in some cases, alumni donations), they ask why squads from Western Kentucky and Vermont, for example, must travel to California to play Stanford in softball.

The true value of a college degree, Higher Education? reminds us, lies in fostering a student's ability to think independently. To that end, the authors profile 11 moderately priced, publicly funded regional colleges that they believe pull this off. If their picks (listed below) are accurate, the most promising future for higher education may reside in a state U. near you.

Arizona State University
Berea College
The Cooper Union
Evergreen State College
Massachusetts Institute of Technology
Raritan Valley Community College
University of Colorado
University of Maryland, Baltimore County
University of Mississippi
University of Notre Dame
Western Oregon University

Washington, D.C., writer Charlie Clark is a former editor at a higher education association.

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