What Your College
Student Won't Tell You
By Barrett Seaman
Wiley; 310pp; $25.95
The Good A disturbing account of undergraduate life on the nation's elite campuses.
The Bad Seaman fails to describe conditions at less-prestigious institutions.
The Bottom Line An effective expose, complete with suggestions for reform.
At just after 2 a.m. on a Sunday morning in October, Hamilton College's security chief received an emergency phone call. A first-year female student at the elite upstate New York liberal arts school had collapsed after downing 22 one-ounce shots of vodka in a drinking game. The incident was far from unusual: She was one of 20 inebriated students who had to be rushed to the hospital that semester.
There are many such chilling anecdotes in Binge, Barrett Seaman's disturbing account of his odyssey through undergraduate life at the start of the 21st century. Unlike lots of higher-education guides that are aimed at students, this book is clearly meant for parents. And as the subtitle -- What Your College Student Won't Tell You -- suggests, it's a sobering antidote to the institutions' glossy PR broadsides.
Seaman, a former White House correspondent and editor at Time, covers the waterfront of problems that afflict higher ed. (In fact, he probably stretches too far, giving little coverage to some of the most interesting topics.) His targets range from the continuing struggle to integrate minority students to the growing volume of mental-health woes and the culture of "hooking up" that has largely replaced conventional dating.
The author restricted his research to the most selective colleges. Making no secret of his project, he arranged to live on the campuses of 12 such schools, including Harvard, Middlebury, Duke, Stanford, the University of Virginia, and Canada's McGill. Seaman himself is a product of this world, but of a very different era: He graduated from Hamilton in 1967, when it was still male-only and telecommunications consisted of a pay phone in the dormitory hallway. His efforts to fit into the radically different environment of today's co-ed housing make for some awkward and comical moments. At a Berkeley co-op house, for example, he stumbled across a nude hot-tub party attended by both sexes. "People are pretty casual about nudity here," he was advised.
On balance, though, Binge is more unsettling than amusing, making a persuasive case that in most respects the residential college experience has deteriorated in recent years. Sure, college students have been imbibing to excess for decades. But Seaman provides powerful evidence that binge drinking is more prevalent and more deadly today. And like Tom Wolfe -- who used similar methods to research his 2004 best-selling novel, I Am Charlotte Simmons -- Seaman takes a dim view of the college sex scene. Not only is the coupling more superficial, but date rape is also up. One of his few encouraging findings: Use of hard drugs is down.
The decline in academic rigor that Seaman documents is more disturbing, in some ways, than his accounts of the party scene. Partly in response to grade inflation, many students spend surprisingly little time studying. That trend has been accentuated by the widespread elimination of Friday classes, which means the hard-partying kicks off on Thursday night. Cheating is also all too common, reports Seaman, citing a study by a Middlebury psychologist in which an outright majority of students admitted to it. And in another acceleration of a long-term trend, many undergrads have little meaningful contact with their professors, especially at big research universities such as Berkeley and Stanford. One reason: a system that rewards aspiring professors more for research and writing than for what they impart to students.
Binge is hardly comprehensive. Focusing on distinguished schools, it all but ignores the thousands of less prestigious private, public, and community colleges that educate most U.S. students. It also says little about the growing financial stratification that leaves most institutions with far fewer resources than those of the privileged few.
Still, there's no question that the elite colleges set the tone for higher education, and Seaman makes a strong case for major changes. For starters, he says, professors should be required to spend more time with undergrads and should get rewarded for doing so. That's a reform that Harvard's embattled president, Lawrence H. Summers, has been pushing. Academic standards should also be raised.
As for all the problems outside of the classroom, Seaman reaches the surprising conclusion that top colleges are "babying" their students by offering an enormous network of "Res life" advisers and counselors. He believes things might improve if students were given more responsibility. For example, U.S. colleges devote enormous resources to combating underage drinking -- and in the process may help fuel underground bingeing. In contrast, at McGill, where students can drink at 18, alcohol is consumed in the open. There, far fewer students are sent to the hospital for alcohol poisoning than at Dartmouth or Middlebury, each of which is smaller. Lowering the drinking age might sound radical. But if college students were treated more like adults, maybe they would be less self-destructive.
By William C. Symonds