Declining by Degrees: Higher Education at Risk

Declining by Degrees: Higher Education at Risk
Edited by Richard H. Hersh and John Merrow
Palgrave Macmillan, 2005, 244 pages, $24.95

Books critical of higher education in America used to be written almost exclusively by “outsiders” who were armed with well-sharpened philosophical axes – Dinesh D’Souza and Charles Sykes, for example. Today, however, we are starting to find critical books coming from educational centrists. Evidently the decay is now so unavoidable that even “insiders” can’t keep quiet about it. That, by itself, is encouraging.

Declining by Degrees is a compilation of fifteen essays, all by individuals who would not be considered opponents of our higher ed system. The book’s editors, Hersh and Merrow are, respectively, a former college president and a former teacher who often reports on education for NPR. This is undeniably a “mainstream” project (a PBS documentary was made to accompany it!) and ought to open a lot of eyes to the waste and folly that is now widespread in our colleges and universities.

In their introduction, Hersh and Merrow write that “Higher education, long viewed as the crown jewel of American education, is tarnished….We found an insidious erosion of quality that we now believe places this nation at risk.” American K-12 education, they aver, “continues to wallow in mediocrity” and “the rot is creeping upward” into colleges and universities. Strong words, but the essays that follow support them.

In the first essay, Gene Maeroff, a senior fellow at Teachers College, Columbia University, observes that most reporting on higher education is weak and ill-serves the public. “Higher education’s weaknesses and shortcomings,” he writes, “remain largely out of sight to reporters, many of whom are quick to seize on almost any foible at the elementary and secondary level. In other words, higher education is Teflon-coated, remarkably immune to criticism.” Putting aside sports, most higher ed stories, he notes, concern either admissions or tuition, conveying the false impression that “nearly every college costs a potentate’s fortune and that most institutions are so selective that only super-students need apply.” Maeroff is right. Rare indeed is the story that questions whether students are learning enough to justify the expense.

James Fallows, national correspondent for Atlantic Monthly, contributes an excellent essay entitled “College Admissions: A Substitute for Quality?” Fallows wonders why there is such a do-or-die emphasis on getting into an elite institution “since there is so little demonstrable connection between the selectivity of the school a student attends and that student’s long-term success or satisfaction in life.” That’s an important and rarely appreciated point. The value of a college education depends vastly more on the efforts of the student than on the prestige of the institution. A crucial implication of that is that the furious dispute over “affirmative action” is quite pointless, but Fallows does not make the point.

The Washington Post’s excellent education reporter, Jay Mathews, contributes one of the book’s strongest essays, “Caveat Lector: Unexamined Assumptions about Quality in Higher Education.” He advises students and parents to read the claims colleges and universities make about their great commitments to learning with considerable skepticism and that is because there is no real evidence on the extent to which schools actually educate. He writes that colleges “insist that what they do has to be good because their professors have fine reputations and their graduates go on to successful careers.” The trouble, of course, is that professors with fine reputations often do very little teaching and that the students would probably have gone on to successful careers anyway. After reading Mathews’ essay, one can’t help but wonder if the cost of a college education at many institutions isn’t vastly out of line with the educational value delivered.

Carol G. Schneider, president of the American Association of Colleges and Universities, focuses on the decline of liberal education, observing that “From the Ivy league to the nation’s growing system of two-year colleges, the academy has lowered its sights for liberal education from the entire college curriculum to that small fraction of the undergraduate experience known as general education.” Liberal education, which aims at providing the student with the sort of “horizon-expanding” knowledge that we have traditionally associated with higher learning – philosophy, literature, the fine arts and so on – is being shouldered aside at most institutions to make room for vocationally-oriented courses. I only regret that Schneider did not ask whether vocationally-oriented courses are not for the most part just costly preliminaries for on-the-job training that employers will provide anyway. Colleges that dump liberal education may be tossing out something of unique value in favor of training that can be more effectively given elsewhere.

Vartan Gregorian, former president of Brown University and current president of the Carnegie Corporation agrees with Schneider that liberal education is largely neglected these days. “Education must help us understand the sweep of our culture, the achievements, the problems, the solutions, and the failures that mark our history.” If students have received little or none of the broadening and deepening of the intellect that comes with a liberal education, he fears that the result will be “an even greater temptation to abdicate judgment in favor of expert opinion.” True enough, but it’s worse than that – the poorly educated student will have difficulty in telling the difference between real experts and the charlatans and demagogues who clamor incessantly for money and power. Gregorian also criticizes education schools. Many college students need remedial coursework and he maintains that weak K-12 teaching is responsible for that fact.

David Kirp, who teaches public policy at Berkeley laments that “Because of the generally shabby quality of undergraduate education, the United States is not getting the educated citizenry that is required if the country is going to stay competitive.” And Murray Sperber, who has twice spoken at Pope Center events, reveals the nasty secret of many campuses – that there is a “nonaggression pact” between the students and faculty members. The deal is that students get high grades and an undemanding workload in return for not expecting much attention from their profs. He sets forth several excellent ideas for reform, including the establishment of a system for rewarding professors either for research or teaching excellence. (Currently, teaching counts for almost nothing.)

Sports writer Frank Deford contributes a fine essay, “America’s Modern Peculiar Institution,” wherein he discusses the harm that is done by the excessive attention paid to college athletics. Arthur Levine follows with “Disconnects Between Students and Their Colleges.” He observes that students tend to desire more contact with their professors, while professors want to limit student contact, and that students want more emphasis on teaching while professors are far more interested in doing research. The problem is that, Levine writes, “For the most part, colleges and universities have resolved these differences in favor of their faculty.” That disconnect opens the door wide for new competitors and Levine says favorable things about the University of Phoenix.

After two weak essays dealing with “diversity” issues, the book concludes with two fine ones. Julie Johnson Kidd’s “It is Only a Port of Call,” correctly observes that college attendance has become a “credentialing process,” that has “little relationship to education at all.” She quotes a German student who had seen American college life first-hand and said that the only thing on American students’ minds seems to be where to find a party. And Bard College president Leon Botstein (also a well-known musician) concludes the book in a minor key: “Although more Americans are completing more years of formal schooling than ever before, including time in college, we find ourselves confronted, it seems, despite more exposure to learning, with an absence of progress in these areas. One needs only to cite the declining quality of public political debate, lapses in integrity and standards in professional and business practices, public entertainment (e.g., reality television), precollege school achievement, and what the eighteenth century called civic virtue.” He thinks that there is no time to lose in changing the focus of the campus from frolic to serious intellectual pursuits.

Declining by Degrees paints a distinctly unflattering portrait of higher education in the U.S. Everyone who plays a role in policy should read it. Everyone who has children in college or who will be attending college in the future should read it. In fact, it would be quite useful for students themselves to read it. UNC ought to consider making it a “summer reading” book.