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An Education Worth the Price?

Interview with Claudia Dreifus, coauthor of "Higher Education? How Colleges Are Wasting Our Money ..."

Imagine a free university. Admission is by lottery. Professors young and old teach all the students, without concern for tenure review or their next journal publication. Ideas flow freely in vibrant classes where humankind's vast knowledge is transferred to the next generation of up-and-coming adults.

Sound like a dream? Professors Andrew Hacker and Claudia Dreifus acknowledge so, but they contend it's one worth striving for. Whether you are earning a degree yourself or contributing money to your grandkids' educations, college expenses take a chunk out of your budget. Hacker and Dreifus' new book, Higher Education? How Colleges Are Wasting Our Money and Failing Our Kids — And What We Can Do About It, sets forth many provocative suggestions for overhauling America's university system to maximize its benefits to students.

Actually, "provocative" is putting it mildly. Hacker and Dreifus recommend abolishing university mainstays such as tenure and overblown athletics programs. They want to oust vocational training programs from universities, reserving such classes for post-undergraduate studies. And above all, they advocate that every young person deserves a free college education.

Hacker and Dreifus, domestic partners and seasoned professors, spent three years researching schools and interviewing students for their first book together. But as Dreifus said in a recent interview with the AARP Bulletin, this project actually started years ago when she and Hacker noticed a sharp decline in the status of teaching at the university level. With that came a decline in the quality of teaching, which has in turn cheated college students of all ages in our society.

(Read an excerpt from Higher Education? How Colleges Are Wasting Our Money and Failing Our Kids And What We Can Do About It.)

Q. How have universities reacted to your proposals?

A. Privately, many university presidents have told us they agree with many of our criticisms. But publicly they could never say it. Fundraising is their main job and so they are a lot like senators — they must be extremely polite and show a good public face. But those who are true educators are very troubled by the state of universities today.

We've also had lots of letters on our website, and surprisingly a lot of professors are agreeing with our book. Good people find it frustrating to work in this very negative atmosphere.

Q. Negative because research is valued over teaching?

A. If being a professor were a board game, the object of the game would not be to get home, but to teach as little as possible. What bedevils me is that I don't understand how something as life-affirming and as wonderful as teaching young people can be viewed as the great negative that it is in higher education.

Q. What is the inherent value of a liberal arts education?

A. It exposes you to a wealth of knowledge of all of humankind throughout our history. It helps to develop you into a human being and will inform what you will do later in life. We are a very rich society compared to the rest of the world. We can afford to send our young people to four years of liberal arts education and then have them decide their career paths. An 18-year-old really can't know what he wants to do yet.

Q. How can parents and grandparents of college applicants identify good schools?

A. Consider public education for the kids or grandkids. Think about in-state education. Don't go for the private school, because that's going to very often be a quarter of a million dollars. And that's just crazy.

Q. You think the family money could be put to better uses?

A. Family members are often asked to help fund the education because it's so expensive. I don't think any education should ever cost $250,000. At that point it is at the level of not paying for itself. There are other ways to get well educated. If your kids insist that private college will start Jennifer or Jason out with a big advantage in life, you have to question that.

Q. Does a prestigious school pay off?

A. We've looked at one Princeton class and analyzed how distinguished they became over their lifetimes. And surprisingly, it wasn't too distinguished, considering the head start they had. We aren't saying that they haven't led good lives or done fine things and been of service to their community, but there was not one senator in the group, not one Supreme Court justice, not one Cabinet member.

Q. Does prestige pay off in graduate school?

A. Prestige doesn't pay off anywhere. I think we have to get rid of the concept because it's like advertising — it doesn't really talk about the product. Different programs are better than others. You have to look for good teaching.

What a designer degree at Harvard/Princeton/Yale is good for, frankly, is getting into Harvard/Princeton/Yale law school or medical school. An Ivy League school is a very pleasant way to spend four years if you can afford it, but is it worth saddling yourself and your children with debt?

Q. Why do you recommend avoiding student loans?

A. We talked to students at a school called Cooper Union, which is all scholarship. When they talked about their futures, these young people were so different from students we met everywhere else. They were free.

Q. What does debt do?

A. For a young person to graduate with $20,000 or $100,000 in loans is to cripple him or her at the starting gate of life. AARP readers know this because we went to school in a period when it wasn't that expensive or took such a large chunk of one's savings that it required indebtedness.

Q. What about the argument that it is better to get professional training rather than a liberal arts degree?

A. When I was young, and certainly when opportunities for women were much more limited than they are today, you got a liberal arts degree but you always took a few education courses so that you could get a license when you were done. Teaching and nursing were the good practical things that an educated female did. It's not a bad strategy: Take a few courses that could get you ready for a profession, but take those liberal arts courses, too. A lot of "professional training" is unnecessary. I've seen courses in golf management. Nursing theory. Really?

Q. How can parents and grandparents help their kids prepare for college?

A. When your child says, "I must go to Williams or I must go to Kenyon because I can't get ahead without it," you say, "Wrong."

Stick to your values. The things you learned in high school, during World War II, in the '60s, they are not wrong: Value is worthwhile. Sometimes you'll be told you're old-fashioned, that you don't understand how the world works now. But no college degree is worth a quarter of a million dollars.

Q. You suggest that universities should draw high schoolers' names from a bowl for admission. Why?

A. College admission is an entirely random, not particularly fair process, especially at the most elite schools. There is the illusion of fairness with the SATs. But at elite schools, 25 percent of the places are dictated by athletic requirements, so what's fair about that? On the one hand, it is supposed to be a meritocracy, but if you are good at judo or rowing you are going to jump ahead of somebody who is really good at philosophy and might change the way the world thinks.

Q. What advice do you have for older students who are going back to college today?

A. If you are going for your four-year degree and you didn't do it when you were younger, the primary qualities you should be looking for are low cost and good teaching. And then I think you need to think outside the box. You have to ask friends where they have had good experiences because it is kind of quirky — there is good teaching and bad teaching in every institution.

Q. Are your older students significantly different to teach?

A. A lot of my students have been older people. They are fabulous. They have life experience, they care, they really want to learn. Many actually get degrees to become teachers.

Q. You write that adjunct professors are exploited by universities. How so?

A. The American Federation of Teachers says the average wage per course for an adjunct is about $3,000. And when you think of all the hours involved preparing lectures, teaching and grading papers, that probably isn't even minimum wage. This is a big issue for older citizens who are teaching because they may well be teaching as adjuncts. They are teaching the same courses at one-sixth the salary of tenure-track professors.

Q. So where do professors who want to teach go today?

A. We have noticed that a lot of good teaching professors have ended up at the community colleges. Some community colleges that we've seen are really a lot better than people think, and might even be better, in many cases, than the four-year colleges or universities. One school we visited — Raritan Valley Community College in Branchburg, N.J. — had very small, intimate classes and teachers who really cared.

Q. What else do you hope people take away from your book?

A. Most of us value education so highly that we haven't asked questions; we are a little intimidated. In the past, people didn't question their doctors or the health care system, and now we do. That same kind of change needs to happen in higher education.

Betsy Towner lives in California.