Higher Education?: How Colleges Are Wasting Our Money and Failing Our Kids---and What We Can Do About It

Image of Higher Education?: How Colleges Are Wasting Our Money and Failing Our Kids---and What We Can Do About It
Release Date: 
August 2, 2010
Times Books
Reviewed by: 

The United States of America’s higher education system was once a shining example of the country’s global leadership. Recently, however, the country’s college education attainment standing has plummeted from the highest ranking in the world to middle of the pack status. At the same time, the costs of higher education have escalated. This dramatic diminution of the value proposition of the country’s higher education system is explored by Andrew Hacker and Claudia Dreifus in Higher Education?

The subtitle—How Colleges Are Wasting Our Money and Failing Our Kids—And What We Can Do About It—conveys their skepticism. The essence of the authors’ argument is that at the very time their quality has deteriorated, college costs have escalated. Significantly, over the last three decades, college costs have increased two-and-a-half times, to the point that an undergraduate education at a private college—at least for those that pay for it, rather than depend mainly on subsidization—now costs a quarter million dollars.

Much of this high cost of education is the direct consequence of escalating personnel costs for faculty salaries have increased significantly. At the same time, colleges have substantially expanded their administrative staffs. The escalation of salary expenses follows universities pursuing priorities other than education and developing their students into interesting people. These other priorities reflect the higher education establishments’ emphasis on research, monetizing that research, engaging in social and community activities, and brand-building initiatives not directly related to education or personal development, a path outlined by Clark Kerr in Advancing the Idea of a Multiversity.

More people making more money adds up to higher costs. It stands to reason that if you pay much more for something, you should expect to get much more. But even though students’ families are paying much more for higher education, professors are less engaged and less present in the classroom, spending much of their time on research and/or other involvements, as more and more classes are taught by teaching assistants.

The authors’ research for this book included reviewing many research studies, examining data in aggregate and also for specific institutions, personal impressions derived from tours of numerous campuses, sitting in on classes, talking to students and faculty, and studying course catalogues. Employing a journalistic approach, and a chatty conversational style, they both present their personal views and also marshal an interesting and entertaining array of evidence—stories, statistics, interviews, analyses, observations, and research studies—to buttress their major themes. The authors support their arguments by anecdotal mini analyses of course content and professors’ presentations.

While this book is entertaining, the authors’ analyses are consistent with their backgrounds in journalism and their pop economics style in dealing with business models and financial economics issues—and are thus neither analytically rigorous nor strategically sophisticated.

As a case in point, in discussing the economics of athletics programs and higher education, the authors assert that the costs of undergraduate athletic programs do not come out of tuition. They then observe that a major cost of athletics is bond interest on the substantial capital expenditures involved in creating sports facilities and stadiums. But from what account—other than the overall budget, of which tuition is a major revenue component—is this bond interest paid?

Just as middle management and line workers have been squeezed in many corporations, as a consequence of offshore manufacturing, outsourcing business processes, and the automation application of multiple tasks, so, too, are similar phenomena at play in the academic setting. Ultimately, Higher Education? is a commentary on this corporatization of higher education.

In common with big business, both elite professors and academic senior executives at the most prestigious and/or powerful universities earn much more than their counterparts at less successful enterprises. Just as corporate CEOs’ compensation has increased dramatically and disproportionately to costs of living, university presidents now make much more than they did in earlier decades, both absolutely and also compared to the employees of the organizations they lead.

Higher education still occurs largely in real time, face-to-face interactions, as contrasted to the any time, any place delivery of much of information transmission and communications in many business contexts, as exemplified by outsourcing transferring work from the United States to Asia. So rather than sending manufacturing jobs to China and business processing tasks to India, higher education has gone down market in delivering teaching, through relying on an ever greater cadre of part-time, non-regular faculty who go by such titles as adjunct professor, acting professor, lecturer, instructor, and graduate assistant.

These academic part-timers—labeled by the authors as the contingent faculty—lack stature, prestige, job security, and compensation. Notably, while select top professors at the most prestigious universities may make nearly $1,000 for each hour of student contact time—both classes and office hours—it is not uncommon for a contingent faculty member to make barely more than the minimum wage.

Overall a substantial share of college courses are taught by the contingent instructional cadre, with the most extreme example being a Florida community college, in which the instruction is delivered by more than 200 contingent faculty and only 3 full-time professors.

Among the authors’ recommendations to remedy universities’ shortcomings are:

• Prioritize education and deemphasize all other activities that do not directly convert to education.
• Emphasize social sciences and the humanities rather than vocational training.
• Reduce or abolish faculty tenure.
• Downplay research and sabbaticals and insist that professors be engaged in teaching.
• Implement more compensation equity between the established tenured faculty and contingent faculty.
• Make more use of what they label “techno teaching,” which embraces e-learning offerings.

While the authors provide a plethora of insights about what is wrong with various universities and a lesser number of highlights concerning what is right, families and students seeking to find the right college and university are still left with the daunting task of translating the authors’ insights into actionable decision rules.

Concerning selecting the right undergraduate college, the authors urge parents to think outside of the box, look for system outliers and iconoclasts, and reject conventional thinking about what makes for a great higher education. To this end, they offer ten schools that they like, based on such criteria as: good core values, idealistic leaders “with the courage to butt the conformity that cripples most corners of contemporary higher education,” student-centered rather than dominated by faculty interests, and low cost—or even free tuition.

Much more can and should be said about college selection criteria that families and students might employ to find the right college. The authors emphasize cost as an important college selection criteria. Value—the other side of the value for money equation—is insufficiently considered, for low cost does not necessarily translate to good value, just as high cost does not necessarily translate to bad value. Much preferred is to consider the value proposition, which involves assessing value net of costs.