Are Colleges Worth the Price of Admission?

Doug Paulin for The Chronicle

July 11, 2010

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?

Several years ago, we set out to answer those questions and began studying institutions and interviewing higher-education leaders, policy makers, and students across the country. Our 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.

Here are some proposals that might begin to set things right:

Engage all students. We believe all Americans can do college work, so universal enrollment should be our nation's goal. But for that to happen, professors must make an effort to reach their students—and not, as former Secretary of Education William Bennett once said, "teach their dissertation or next article." Colleges should demand good teaching. They must become conscientious, caring, and attentive to every corner of their classrooms.

Make students use their minds. What should happen to students at college? They should become more thoughtful and interesting people. But some 64 percent of undergraduate students are enrolled in vocational majors, instead of choosing fields like philosophy, literature, or the physical sciences. We'd like to persuade them that supposedly impractical studies are a wiser use of college and ultimately a better investment. The undergraduate years are an interlude that will never come again, a time to liberate the imagination and stretch one's intellect without worrying about a possible payoff. We want that opportunity for everyone, not just the offspring of professional parents.

Replace tenure with multiyear contracts. Despite fears concerning academic freedom, higher education will lose nothing by ending tenure but will reap major gains. We conclude this reluctantly. But tenure takes a huge toll at every academic level. Professors who possess it have no reason to improve their teaching, take on introductory courses, or, in fact, accept any tasks not to their liking. Meanwhile, junior faculty members pay a brutal price by succumbing to intellectual caution. If we could achieve only one reform, that would be it.

Allow fewer sabbaticals. We hear often that academics need every seventh year to recharge their mental batteries, yet we've found no evidence that this happens during a sojourn in Tuscany. We next hear that faculty members require relief from teaching to better conduct their research. Nearly 500,000 assistant, associate, and full professors could now be eligible for sabbaticals. Do we really need that many new books or articles?

End exploitation of adjuncts. It is immoral and unseemly to have a person teaching the same course as an ensconced faculty member but for one-sixth of the pay of his or her tenured colleague down the hall. Adjuncts should receive the same per-course compensation as an assistant professor, including health insurance and other benefits. Most adjuncts are committed teachers who were overproduced by Ph.D. factories, more politely called graduate schools. Finding money to eradicate that outcast group should have highest priority—higher, certainly, than building a mega-athletic complex or a new campus in Abu Dhabi.

Make presidents be public servants. They should say "thanks, but no" if their trustees offer them salaries of $1-million, or anything near it. Colleges contend that they must pump up what they pay to get the best administrators. We're not opposed to talent, but higher education needs something more. The head of the Food and Drug Administration puts in a full day for under $200,000, as do four-star generals. Presidents needn't take vows of poverty, but do they really need quasicorporate stipends to take the job?

Spin off medical schools, research centers, and institutes. Postgraduate training has a place, as long as it doesn't divert faculties from working with undergraduates or preoccupy presidents, who should be focusing on education—not angling for another center on antiterrorist technologies. For people who want to do research, plenty of other places exist—the Brookings Institution, the Rand Corporation, the Howard Hughes Medical Institute—all of which do excellent work without university ties. Princeton University has succeeded quite nicely without a medical school—which often becomes the most costly complex on a campus, commandeering resources, attention, and even mission. In fact, the "school" often becomes a minute part of a medical complex: Johns Hopkins has fewer than 500 medical students, but atop them sits an empire with more than 30,000 employees.

Give techno-teaching a fair hearing. Nothing outshines a superb teacher, whether in small seminars or large lecture halls. Yet a gripping performance on a screen may be preferable to a live teacher of doubtful competence. Unlike a textbook, software can pose interactive questions, review answers, and tell students to try again, offering hints on where they may have gone wrong. Other computer programs can meld clips from movies, plays, or ballet. Techno-teaching can't rival a seminar pondering Fermat's last theorem or King Lear, but until we improve classroom instruction, new methods shouldn't be dismissed out of hand.

Spread donations around. Too many benefactors donate to institutions that are already well provided for. Even in economic downturns, gifts to the wealthiest colleges keep coming in. So here's a suggestion for their donors: Pick another college—there's a long, deserving list—and send your check where it will truly do some good.

As we traveled around the country researching our book, we, in fact, found some colleges that we thought were doing their job well:

The University of Mississippi. In 1962 the Supreme Court ordered Ole Miss to admit James Meredith, a black Air Force veteran. In the riots that greeted his admission, two died and dozens were injured. President John F. Kennedy had to send in federal troops.

Today Ole Miss is a university where reconciliation and civility are at the heart of the educational mission. Much of the transformation has been the work of Robert Khayat, who retired from the chancellorship in 2009. In his 14 years there, he raised academic standards, tripled African-American enrollment, and banned Confederate flags from athletic events. Under his leadership the university reached into its past for different pieces of the state's history. Think Eudora Welty, William Faulkner, and Tennessee Williams. Ole Miss has a Center for the Study of Southern Culture that focuses on the art, literature, music, and food of the region, black and white. Indeed, of all the flagship colleges we have visited, we have found Ole Miss the most appealing. The campus has the feel of a liberal-arts college. Its Sally McDonnell Barksdale Honors College offers as fine an education as one might find at Carleton or Kenyon Colleges.

Raritan Valley Community College. A two-year college in New Jersey where all students commute and 40 percent study part time, Raritan provides a better introduction to college work than many four-year institutions. It has no megalectures. Its classes don't exceed 40 students, and many are seminar size. Team teaching is encouraged, with both professors present throughout the term. Like most two-year colleges, Raritan's classes are taught mainly by adjuncts. Many have been with Raritan for a while, are good in their fields, and can work closely with students because classes are small. The signal fact about Raritan and colleges like it is that you can get a start with the liberal arts at a tenth of the cost of many private tuitions, and a third of what flagship colleges charge. More than that, you can learn with professors who know your name and have an interest in your future.

University of Notre Dame. Perhaps because of its religious base, the university has successfully avoided the faddish academic trends and compulsive consumerism that has overwhelmed many other colleges. The campus looks relatively spartan. Teaching appears to have genuine import; Notre Dame has a 13-to-one student-faculty ratio, and only 10 percent of the classes are taught by graduate assistants. The president, the Rev. John Jenkins, has himself taught undergraduates—and he personally counsels them if they are suffering a spiritual crisis. Interestingly, for a university famous for football, sports don't seem to overwhelm. On Notre Dame's Web site, it is academics and student life that are trumpeted. It's as if the administrators are saying, "Listen, we have our priorities."

The Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art. While many Ivies describe themselves as meritocracies, Cooper Union, a no-tuition college for engineering, fine arts, and architecture, actually is one. Art and architecture applicants are considered not only by their standardized-test scores, but through a "home test" of six or 10 open-ended questions. When one sits around a table with Cooper seniors and they speak of their futures, their tone is different from students we've met elsewhere. Without the miseries of debt, they contemplate limitless possibilities. Cooper can do that because it dedicates its endowment to a tuition-free education; other well-endowed universities might do well to follow suit.

Berea College. Berea, a liberal-arts college rated by U.S. News & World Report as one of "the best comprehensive" colleges in the South, also does not charge tuition. Instead, students are asked to contribute 10 hours a week of labor. Most of them come from the top 20 percent of their high schools and from families where the annual income is under $50,000 a year. For those fortunate enough to win admission, a first-rate education is proffered. The student-faculty ratio is 10-to-one with no graduate teaching assistants substituting for professors.

Arizona State University. At a distance, Arizona State seems like just another oversized state university: a giant credential factory with a football team. But look closer and one quickly sees that it may well be the most experimental institution in the country, a university where the old rules are up for grabs and anyone with an interesting idea can get a hearing. Many academic departments have been dissolved and re-formed within new interdisciplinary institutes, breaking the stranglehold of the disciplines that is so deadly at most colleges. Like Ole Miss, Arizona State has a first rate Honor's College. Good, bad, smart, stupid, it's possible to get new things started at this university. Even some old-time professors, tenured long before the reformer Michael Crow assumed the presidency, told us that they found it exciting to be working at an institution with so much buzz.

University of Maryland-Baltimore County. The Meyerhoff Scholars Program has greatly increased the number of African-Americans in the biological sciences and engineering. In addition, although the university is a research institution focused on science and engineering, undergraduate instruction in the liberal arts is not an afterthought. President Freeman A. Hrabowski sets a tone at the top that says teaching undergraduates is important, and the faculty knows he means it. Of all the research universities we've visited, it is the place that has most capably connected research with undergraduate education.

University of Colorado at Boulder. Despite one of the longest-running football scandals in college sports and the debacle of Ward Churchill (an ethnic-studies professor who compared the victims of the World Trade Center bombing to a Nazi war criminal, and who was later charged with research misconduct), the University of Colorado is capable of doing some things right. For example, in the undergraduate course, "Physics for Everyday Life," founded by the Nobel Prize winner Carl Wieman, the lessons are broken down into modules. A feedback system employing computers and clickers means that the lecturer never moves faster than the students. Trained and supervised graduate teaching assistants keep track of the students, and the lead professor gets weekly reports on their progress. Above all, the course is taught in a way that is interesting to students.

Massachusetts Institute of Technology. It's good to be a contingent at MIT. One part-time writing professor we know teaches two and a half courses a year and coordinates internships. For that, she earns half the compensation of a senior professor, plus benefits for five contract years. Depending on the discipline, part-timers who teach a half-time load are eligible for health insurance, making MIT the contingents' Valhalla. So far as we've heard, decency, fair pay, and health insurance have yet to bankrupt it—and they probably wouldn't other institutions, either.

Western Oregon University. A former teachers' college, Western Oregon does its job without any frills or pretense and with utter seriousness and dedication. Most of its students are either rural or working class; a majority are the first in their families to attend college. Costs are kept at a minimum. The university even offers a "tuition promise" to entering freshmen: Their fees will remain constant throughout their four years. Although the campus is attractive and modern, it has few of the bells and whistles that are routine at other institutions. While salaries are modest, faculty members are enthusiastic. There are no star professors, little research, and the administrative pool is bare bones. All energy is focused on one thing: educating undergraduates.

Evergreen State College. Evergreen is very much a product of the 1960s, when the State of Washington created a new type of public college—one rooted in the ideas of the progressive-education movement. There are no grades or set curriculum. At the end of each quarter, professors present students with long written evaluations of their work; the students, in turn, do the same for their teachers. Courses are cross-disciplinary and team taught, and they are invented or redesigned annually. Despite the university's reputation as a countercultural bastion, 82 percent of its graduates found full-time employment within a year, and 93 percent of those who applied got into graduate schools. For students who want to spend four years in an atmosphere of pure learning, this is the place.

The institutions that we've cited are exceptions to our premise that higher education has lost track of its original and enduring purpose. They reinforce our view that college should be a cultural journey, an intellectual expedition, a voyage confronting new ideas and information. Many colleges with national names and universities with imperial plans could learn a lot from them.

Andrew Hacker is a professor at Queens College and the author of Two Nations: Black and White, Separate, Hostile, Unequal (Scribner, 2003). Claudia Dreifus is an adjunct associate professor at Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs and a writer for The New York Times. This article is adapted from Higher Education? How Colleges Are Wasting Our Money and Failing Our Kids—and What We Can Do About It, published next month by Henry Holt/Times Books.