Book Review: Higher Education? How Colleges are Wasting Our Money

Higher Education? How Colleges Are Wasting
Our Money and Failing Our Kids—and What We Can Do About It
By Andrew Hacker and Claudia Dreifus
Times Books, 288 pp, $26

Here's something unusual: good news about the $420 billion American higher education business. Authors Andrew Hacker and Claudia Dreifus report that, with an open mind, teenagers and their parents can find any number of surprisingly high-quality, reasonably priced colleges and universities. Forget Harvard. Arizona State, anybody?

The business of shaping undergraduate minds, in the authors' view, charges too much and delivers too little. However, Hacker, a sociologist at Queens College in New York, and Dreifus, a science journalist at The New York Times, set themselves apart from other recent chroniclers of the American campus demise by offering constructive advice in Higher Education? How Colleges Are Wasting Our Money and Failing Our Kids—and What We Can Do About It.

Recent grads and their cash-drained relatives may know some of what's in this volume. For younger, uninitiated familiesand old-timers in the foggy grip of campus nostalgiathe book offers a bracing dose of reality. After three decades of tuition increases exceeding the overall rate of inflation, a ritzy college degree comes with a $250,000 bill. Uninspired—and usually underpaid—part-time instructors do 70percent of the teaching these days, according to Hacker and Dreifus. At the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School, often described as the country's top undergraduate business program, freshmen in Management 100 are taught, in part, by undergraduates who took the course just a year or two earlier. "Few sophomores," the authors write, "have the fund of information, techniques for coping with questions, or the skills for conducting discussions that college-level teaching requires." Or that Penn's $53,000 annual tuition would suggest.

At many schools, liberal arts students are cast adrift in a curricular sea of the overly vocational (at Ohio State, Turfgrass majors can specialize in either golf course or sports turf management) and the unnecessarily narrow. The authors raise an eyebrow over Stanford's 229 undergraduate history courses, maintaining that many of these highly specialized classes simply "make life easier for the professor who often just has to use notes from his last article or the galleys of her next book."

Hacker and Dreifus insist that students with any intention of learning are likely to be disappointed. Carefully steering clear of nativism, they report the dirty little secret that over in the math and science buildings, graduate students imported from China, Russia, and Korea too often lack the English skills to lead classes on physics or calculus. The cumulative results are depressing. Freshmen courses have enormous rates of students withdrawing or failing: 45percent is common, according to the National Center for Academic Transformation. More than a quarter of all freshmen nationwide never return for their sophomore year.

The authors also observe how conventional universities are coming to resemble for-profit diploma mills through inexpensive, Orwellian-titled "distance learning." At Florida Gulf Coast University on the outskirts of Fort Myers, students in Humanities 2510 sit in dormitories or at home studying painting, sculpture, and architecture via online lectures. Adjunct professors with modest credentials answer questions by e-mail; telephone calls are not allowed. Multiple-choice tests emphasize dry facts and figures. Short papers are required, but students don't have to attend performances or see art in person. In lieu of customized grading, instructors draw on "sample stock comments" they slap on student papers. "Humanities 2510 seems close to cramming for a quiz show," the authors write. To readers, it might just seem like a rip-off.

Hacker and Dreifus harbor radical reform ideas: eliminating tenure, divesting major universities of much of their research operations, trying admission by lottery. Tenure, it seems, is eroding on its own, as schools transition to mostly part-time instructors. The other proposals seem interesting but entirely unrealistic.

Of more use to lay readers are the authors' criteria for making the best of what's out there, as evidenced in their top ten list of worthy schools. Some highlights: Ole Miss has a strong student-centered liberal arts curriculum and an atmosphere of racial reconciliation, the authors write. Cooper Union in New York offers top-flight engineering and architecture degrees—sans tuition. Arizona State University, with 68,000 students, cultivates niches such as its Honors College, where 3,000 undergrads enjoy an intimate liberal arts program at state school prices. Raritan Valley Community College in exurban New Jersey proves that commuter students and part-timers can get an excellent two-year jump start that prepares them for a full-fledged institution.

In future editions of this worthwhile book, Hacker and Dreifus might address how, even at overpriced bastions of pretension, determined undergraduates can still read a few books and challenge themselves intellectually. Sure, most of the tenured professors don't give a damn, but it's a useful life lesson to figure out the ones that do, and take all of their classes. Finally, its striking that despite the seismic cultural changes of the Internet era, the Ivy League and its cousins retain their aura of superiority. Is it really all just self-importance and clever marketing? I suspect these schools have idiosyncratic strengths that help explain their continued success, beyond mere snob appeal. By all means, send your kid to Arizona State if that appeals. Although Princeton ain't bad, either.

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