The Sciences

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

The IntersectionBy Sheril KirshenbaumAug 25, 2010 2:39 PM


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This book review is by my husband, David Lowry, a plant evolutionary geneticist in the Department of Integrative Biology at the University of Texas at Austin. We recently r

ead Higher Education? How Colleges Are Wasting Our Money and Failing Our Kids—and What We Can Do About It by Andrew Hacker and Claudia Dreifus. I highly recommend this book to readers and hope it's widely circulated in and out of academia. I decided David should compose the review to offer the perspective of a postdoc currently in the system.

Higher Education? How colleges are wasting our money and failing our kids-and what we can do about it by Andrew Hacker and Claudia Dreifus is an enthralling report on the state of higher education in the early 21st century. As the title suggests, the main goal of the book is to guide colleges and universities toward a future where education of undergraduate students is once again at the forefront, and not an afterthought of research, athletics, and bloated administrations, as it has become in recent years. Early in “Higher Education,” Hacker and Dreifus lay out their core beliefs in the approach that should be taken:

Higher education should be open to every young person, and this is an option we can well afford. We confess to being born-again Jeffersonians: we believe everyone has a mind, the capacity to use it, and is entitled to encouragement. Of course, students have to do their share. But the adults who have chosen higher education as their profession have even greater obligations, which we’re not convinced they’re fulfilling.

The professors who have chosen higher education as a career are the subjects of the first chapter. It is here that the reader realizes that the gloves are off and Hacker and Dreifus aren’t going hold back in their critiques of the sacred cows of the ivory tower. To them the contemporary professoriate is composed of a group of tenured six-figure paychecks, who focus far too much time on their questionably meaningful research, while constantly trying to dodge any interactions with undergraduate students (i.e. teaching). Academics are likely to curse under their breath while reading this scathing report, while those who have always questioned the value of the professoriate may find themselves pumping their fists in the air. Regardless, you are not putting the book down now, Hacker and Dreifus have a lot of blame to spread around. In subsequent chapters, the authors question why college administrations are so large, why colleges cost so much, and the point of college athletics. In each section, they skillfully describe the issues at hand and present possible solutions. Throughout, the reader will feel confident that they have already grappled with the issue only to find Hacker and Dreifus have a fresh perspective for these old debates. There was more than one point where the authors presented data that made me rethink former assumptions. For example, I had always assumed that scientific research departments paid for themselves through external competitive grants. After all, what were universities doing with that 33-50% that they took out of those grants for overhead? Yet, a college president testifying before Congress recently claimed that a big reason for the rise in college tuition is its commitment to research, namely genomics, which happens to be my field of study. While “Higher Education” spreads the blame around and is fair in its assessment, Hacker and Dreifus do bring personal biases to the discussion. One recurring theme that caught my attention was the lack of clarity on what exactly Hacker and Dreifus believe to be the value of college education. They appear to feel that a well-rounded liberal arts education is best for all students and there are many references to western classics and a yearning for interdisciplinary “consilience” courses. Vocational education is definitely seen as second rate. In the chapter, “The triumph of training,” they express great disdain for “practical” majors, even engineering, which our nation could definitely use more of right now. They end this chapter with the following:

We’ve met former business majors, now nearing middle age who say they regret not having studied philosophy while at college. We have yet to meet a philosophy major who felt he or she should have chosen business.

My father, who has a Masters degree in history and now runs a non-profit, has often told me he wished that he had taken more business courses. I wish I had taken more practical computer programming courses. I also wish that those practical skills had been a requirement for my undergraduate degree. In today’s modern technological world there really has to be a balance between the practical and the academic in higher education. Hacker and Dreifus argue that it might be better if practical skills are taught elsewhere. The only problem is that this might further isolate the ivory tower from the rest of society. The same would be the case for the elimination of college sports programs, which are watched by a lot of folks who never went to college who reside in the communities around universities. Like it or not, college sports are often the greatest unifying force across socioeconomic classes and polarized political groups in communities across America. “Higher Education” may be a bitter pill, but it is a pill that the academy sorely needs right now. I would sadly have to say that many of the faculty I know would like nothing better than to avoid teaching undergraduate courses. Administrations and campus bureaucracies can be bloated and inefficient. The cost of college is putting it out of reach of many, while college debt is becoming unsustainable. Few campuses have huge endowments, while many squeak by on much lower budgets. Adjuncts and lecturers are exploited labor. For profit colleges are often a scam. Athletics may cost too much. Even so, I don’t agree with many of the conclusions reached by Hacker and Dreifus especially about the elimination of tenure and the value of research. But that is the point. “Higher Education” is about starting the debate, a discussion that will hopefully lead to an improved and affordable education system for all.

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