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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.

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.