Claudia Dreifus: Higher Education?

January 3, 2011 by  
Filed under Non-Fiction, WritersCast

978-0805087345 – Times Books/Holt – Hardcover – $26.00 (ebook edition available at $12.99)

I well remember reading the work of sociologist Andrew Hacker many years ago (and was particularly impressed by his now out of print The End of the American Era).  When I learned that he and New York Times writer Claudia Dreifus had collaborated on a new book about the modern college and university system, I knew I would want to read it.  The complete title and subtitle of the book is important as it tells what the book is about pretty clearly: Higher Education?: How Colleges Are Wasting Our Money and Failing Our Kids—and What We Can Do About It. While this book takes a far different approach than Anya Kamenetz’s DIY U, the two books really should be read together by anyone interested in the future of higher education. (My interview with Anya can be found here in the Writerscast archives.)

Here is how Hacker and Dreifus describe this book on their excellent and highly recommended website:

“Higher Education? asks what students and families receive for the approximately quarter of a million dollars four years at a top-tier American university cost. With many prestigious universities hinting of continued tuition hikes, with the rate of student debt increasing to crisis levels, we ask, “How did a college degree become the second most expensive purchase families will make in their lifetimes?”

Plus: “Are young people getting good value for their enormous investments?”

We hope that our book can trigger a national discussion. With a system this large and complex, we certainly don’t have all the answers. But we hope to toss a few pertinent—and impertinent–questions into the public square.”

I think their questions, their many criticisms, and their suggestions for positive change mostly ring true.  As almost everyone knows, the cost of a four year college education has become astonishingly expensive, and there seems to be no way to slow down the out-of-control machine.  Hacker and Dreifus question some basic assumptions that so many parents, high school educators and kids themselves take for granted – that the more prestigious schools are “worth” their costs, that the expense of a four year college education is justified by the later benefits of coveted high income employment, etc.  But they also ask, what should a college education be for, and how do colleges measure up to what we expect from them.

If going to college is only about students later getting the best jobs, are colleges providing education or some sort of high end vocational system?  What is the justification for college sports?  Do highly paid tenured professors really contribute to the education of students in ways commesurate with their salaries, and how do we justify all the many layers of bureaucracy in colleges and universities throughout America that do not provide significant educational value to the students who bear the majority of the costs they incur?  And what about the low-paid, overworked adjunct professors who bear the brunt of the teaching burden in so many institutions of higher learning?

One could expect quite a bit of controversy about this book and certainly quite a bit of resentment by many of the established academic interests they attack.  Interestingly, Vartan Gregorian, the former president of Brown University and current president of the Carnegie Corporation of New York loves the book: “With facts, figures and probing analysis, authors Andrew Hacker and Claudia Dreifus clearly lay out why so many colleges and universities are helping to support a de facto American class system while failing their primary mission of preparing not only skilled labor but also producing educated, knowledgeable citizens who can play a role advancing our national life and strengthening our democracy.”

Reading this powerfully argued book can make one almost uncomfortable, as they question so many of the benefits of higher education we tend to take for granted.  But in the end, it is difficult not to agree that there is much that needs to change in the way our colleges and universities function in society.  The future of American higher education looks grim if we do not address these issues in the very immediate future.

I had originally hoped to interview both the authors together, but while that was not possible, my discussion with Claudia Dreifus was both lively and interesting.  Since Claudia’s background is in interviewing, she handles being the interviewee with aplomb and grace.  I’d recommend listening to this interview and then reading the book as soon as possible.  You will want to learn more, I think then, about how you can work toward making actual change in the American educational system.  Visiting the Hacker/Dreifus website might be a good start but I do think it will require organized, meaningful action especially by parents and their children as they are the ones most able to cause change to occur.  Is there anyone who can lead such a movement?  Or will the current system simply continue on its present arc until the cost of education is so high that consumers finally just say “no more?”

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