The Sciences

Are Colleges Worth the Price of Admission?

The IntersectionBy Sheril KirshenbaumJul 13, 2010 2:21 PM


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The talented professors/writers Claudia Dreifus and Andrew Hacker have a new book coming out in August called Higher Education? How Colleges Are Wasting Our Money and Failing Our Kids—and What We Can Do About It. It's a topic CM and I frequently explore here so I'm very much looking forward to this one. Yesterday's Chronicle of Higher Eduction included an interesting article adapted from their book entitled, Are Colleges Worth the Price of Admission? Good question. Hacker and Dreifus begin:

Without tenure, I expect that the brightest early career scientists would move toward industry. Then again, maybe that's not a bad shift. What do readers think? Regardless, Higher Education? is sure to be a thought-provoking read!

Tuition charges at both public and private colleges have more than doubled—in real dollars—compared with a generation ago. For most Americans, educating their offspring will be the largest financial outlay, after their home mortgage, they'll ever make. And if parents can't or won't pay, young people often find themselves burdened with staggering loans. Graduating with six figures' worth of debt is becoming increasingly common. So are colleges giving good value for those investments? What are families buying? What are individuals—and our society as a whole—gaining from higher education?

So after years of interviews with policymakers, students, and university leaders... Their conclusion?

Colleges are taking on too many roles and doing none of them well. They are staffed by casts of thousands and dedicated to everything from esoteric research to vocational training—and have lost track of their basic mission to challenge the minds of young people. Higher education has become a colossus—a $420-billion industry—immune from scrutiny and in need of reform.

They go on to lay out several recommendations toward elevating the state of our nation's institutions such as calling for a better standard of teaching, improving conditions for adjunct faculty, and focusing on non-vocational majors. Hacker and Dreifus also suggest that university presidents accept lower salaries and explain why postgraduate training should not divert faculties from students. Excellent advice and more ideas are included as well. One area that I do not wholly agree is their suggestion to replace tenure with multi-year contracts for faculty. While I understand the rationale, I can't see this working very well because:

  • It takes many years to build up a research program, so without tenure, greater numbers of projects would likely be abandoned after substantial monetary and time investments have been made.

  • Nontenured faculty will not likely feel comfortable enough to speak out against poor decisions made by their university administration without job security.

  • Why accept lower pay and longer hours than peers working outside of academia without the chance of achieving career stability down the line? (Consider: Losing a university faculty position often requires uprooting one's family to relocate wherever another becomes available).

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