Studying or Partying?

For many years, I have lamented that typical American undergraduates waste much of their time and their parents’ money in college. They devote themselves much more to “beer and circus” (as I entitled of one of my books) than to serious learning. And sadly, many colleges and universities enable, sometimes encourage, them in this behavior.

People seem to be waking up to this situation. Among the positive signs are the recent publication of a number of books that call into question the value of college. One of those books is The Five-Year Party by Craig Brandon.

Brandon makes an emotional cri-de-coeur about the decline of higher education, particularly at public institutions–famous large universities as well as small state schools like Keene State in New Hampshire where he taught for a number of years.  He covers well-known ground, much of it fertilized by vomit from student binge drinking, but he also offers useful information on little-known aspects of the problem, e.g., the cover-up: how school administrators purposely misinterpret federal laws in order to not inform the public, including parents of students, about the realities of student behavior.

He bemoans the fact that at the schools he labels “Diplomas Inc,” students are just customers and school administrators want to please them in all ways possible, including putting pressure on faculty to give almost automatic “A” grades. High standards and academic rigor are no match for the overpowering desire to keep students enrolled and their money flowing in.

For the same reason, administrators tend to look the other way as students drink themselves into near-oblivion. They know that the drinking is excessive and even dangerous, but they won’t crash the party.

The reward for students being good clients and paying ever-increasing amounts of tuition dollars and other fees is a diploma.  However, because they have not received a real education, their diplomas are almost worthless, and they cannot obtain decent jobs with them. Although most schools imply that graduating from them will put the student on the path to a good career, the truth is that many have barely advanced past their high school knowledge and will find employment in jobs like theater usher and coffee barista.

Brandon’s points are all well taken. They have been made before, but it doesn’t hurt to make them afresh since it’s very important for Americans to finally grasp that there is a huge gap between higher education’s image and its reality.

Many observers of contemporary higher education will sympathize with Brandon’s position, and I wanted to like the book, but a reader disconnect occurs because of his sweeping generalizations and his casual, often non-existent, referencing of evidence.

For example–one of many–he offers this fascinating and important claim: “A large percentage of party school students admit that they chose their college not because of its academic standing but because of its reputation as a party school, with minimal academic demands and maximum opportunities to enjoy themselves.” The reader assumes that this evidence came from a study and wants to know more about it—at the minimum, its provenance—but no footnote or any other kind of reference exists for it. 

Brandon, a professional journalist, wants us to take his word for it and much else, but because of the controversial nature of this and other claims, full referencing is necessary. He (and his publisher) should know that.

And when he does offer footnotes, they are sometimes at odds with the text; moreover, the text can be misleading.  He states, to take one example of many: “In a survey of students at 119 American colleges, Harvard University found that 44 percent of American college students had engaged in binge drinking during the two weeks before the survey.”  Now, not all of Harvard University found this out; a researcher in its School of Public Health, Dr. Henry Wechsler, did.  However, Wechsler published his results in 1996 and conducted his research in previous years, i.e., more than 15 years before the publication of The Five-Year Party.   But Brandon gives the impression that this survey is completely up-to-date, revealing the actual dates in a footnote at the rear of the book.

Binge drinking on American campuses is as current as last night’s basketball scores, so why rely on old data that’s presented as if it were up-to-date?

The problem with Brandon’s sloppy writing and referencing is that it allows his enemy—university administrators and apologists–an easy target and a way to avoid confronting the serious and real charges he makes in the book. 

In Brandon’s best chapter, “An Obsession with Secrecy,” (the only one that is well-documented), he explains in detail how schools, particularly their lawyers and public relations personnel, discovered the myriad ways in which they could manipulate the privacy provisions in the FERPA laws (Federal Education Rights and Privacy Act).  Their goal is simple: to keep the public, including parents of students, as far away as possible from the realities of student behavior—academic failure but also criminal acts—and to keep the school as far away as possible from any legal or even moral responsibility for this behavior.

Thus, when questioned by the media or parents about these issues, university administrators claim that the FERPA laws prevent them from saying anything.  Brandon correctly points out that the author of the FERPA laws, former Senator James Buckley of New York, as well as federal bureaucrats who enforce it, have consistently condemned schools for their over-interpretation of its privacy clauses–but to no avail.

That is a very important point to put into the realm of public discussion. I hope that it isn’t ignored because of the weaknesses in the rest of the book.

I have rarely read a more frustrating book.  I wanted to agree with many of Brandon’s points but found his method of argumentation and referencing too far from general standards.

If I were grading The Five-Year Party as a college paper, I’d write on the first page, “This is a pretty good draft and you have quite a few important ideas, but it needs more work. Above all, you need to carefully reference your claims and sources.”