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The Truth About the Colleges

The last few decades have seen changes in enrollments at the top dozen schools. Most notable has been the arrival of students of Asian origin. While they make up less than 4 percent of the nation’s college-age population, they now account for 35 percent of the undergraduates at MIT, followed by 27 percent at Stanford, 20 percent at Columbia and Penn, along with 18 percent at Harvard. Most of these students have been accepted on their merits, and a considerable proportion of them major in science or mathematics. Moreover, few of them benefit from being in the legacy pool or have been recruited for places on the squash and water polo teams.

While all the books under review discuss academic merit as defined by test scores, none of them then draws the conclusion that, by that standard, Asians clearly are academically superior to other groups. Nor do they acknowledge that their admission leaves fewer seats for whites, so each year sees fewer white faces on the most coveted campuses. This shift has been both recent and rapid; less than twenty years ago, the Asian percentages were half what they are now. In some respects, Asians are in a position akin to that faced by Jews in an earlier time.7 Parents and high school teachers are asking whether schools are rejecting some students who have the expected academic credentials because they fear they would begin to look “too Asian.” More than a few Asian applicants believe they are more severely judged on how “well-rounded” they are; they complain that admissions offices do not recognize that Asians can be as heterogeneous as other groups.8


All the books under review voice a similar lament: too many professors, perhaps most, are doing a mediocre job in the classroom. Students are inclined to agree. The Princeton Review presented undergraduates at 357 schools with the statement “my professors bring material to life,” and asked them to grade their teachers on whether they do so. Table B shows a range of responses. As can be seen, satisfaction is highest in colleges that keep their enrollments small, don’t have graduate programs, and are not necessarily nationally known. The lowest scores in the survey went to undergraduate instruction at large, well-known research universities. If we look at just the schools in the table, those with high scores together have only 12,388 students, while the scores in the second column testify to the classroom experience of 150,532 undergraduates.

Patrick Allitt, a professor of US history at Emory University, has published a day-by-day diary of how he conducts his course in American history. The greater part of I’m the Teacher, You’re the Student describes the subjects he teaches and how he presents them. (“Today I lecture on farming.”) While he has only thirty-nine students, it is his voice we mainly hear. When he asks questions, he tends to get laconic responses, which he generally rates as deficient, if not actually pitiable. We get some idea of his own intellectual sensibility from his final examination, which is devoted largely to dates (the year Wendell Willkie ran), locations (Battle of Little Big Horn), names (author of The Jungle), identifications (Rough Riders), plus a question requiring a one-paragraph response (“Was the New Deal a Success?”). He then quotes some of the egregious errors of his students (“John Kenneth Galbraith tried to kill Henry Clay Frick”). In the end, though, he gives everyone in the class a B or better.

In a closing chapter, Allitt complains that at least a quarter of his students had

no aptitude for history, no appreciation for the connection between events, no sense of how a historical situation changes over time, they don’t want to do the necessary hard work, they skimp on the reading, and can’t write to save their lives.

This, if we are to believe Allitt, is the situation at Emory, which US News & World Report ranks twentieth among its 129 “best national universities,” ahead of Berkeley, Georgetown, and NYU. Its students score well on the SAT, and presumably worked hard in high school. But at no point does Allitt wonder how he might have stimulated students to take more interest in the subjects he taught. For a teacher to conclude that his students have “no aptitude” for history seems to foreclose their chances of learning about the past that produced them.

Ken Bain, who directs NYU’s Center for Teaching Excellence, introduces us to thirty-three professors who year after year receive high ratings from their students. All the men and women he met, from universities ranging from Stanford and Northwestern to an unnamed “freshwater college in Oklahoma,” are deeply committed to undergraduate education. In most of What the Best College Teachers Do professors describe the approaches and techniques they use in their classrooms. Some have high aims: “I want the students to feel like they have invented calculus.” Others talk about their basic beliefs: “There’s no such thing as a stupid question in my class.” Yet having heard many academics talk about their work, and having met many of their students, I tend to be wary of self-appraisals. A recent study found that only 24 percent of professors who were polled admitted that their courses required a lot of memorizing, while 64 percent of their students felt this was the case.9

Bain’s account would have been improved by an accompanying DVD, if only to confirm the claim that these are unusual teachers. It would help to see them in action, whether lecturing to large groups, teaching mid-sized classes, or presiding over a seminar. For example, one of Bain’s professors reminds us that “students operate on different levels and will not all catch on at the same time.” So she finds ways to “give different people different kinds of challenges.” It is possible, she suggests, within a single lesson, to give those in the bottom quarter one set of ideas to ponder, yet simultaneously show the top quarter that there are more complex mazes to untangle. When this happens, both A and C students will have the potential to learn something, and may even agree that the course was worthwhile. From such accounts, we can’t really know what students learn, but this teacher sounds more imaginative than most others.

Nowhere does Bain ask the professors he studied about their own research and writing. In some smaller colleges, many faculty members no longer publish books or articles about their subjects, and their deans don’t seem to mind. At universities, the traditional argument is that research enhances teaching because it requires teachers to keep up with their disciplines. Bain sidesteps this issue, perhaps because the typical undergraduate is nineteen, and will probably gain from whatever a conscientious professor puts in a syllabus.

Andrew Delbanco has noted in these pages that undergraduates are mainly taught in university settings.10 Indeed, the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching found that seven out of eight candidates for a BA or BS are enrolled in campuses where the work of devoted teachers is rarely rewarded, and prestige and high salaries are conferred on professors who concentrate on their research, graduate seminars, publications, and reputations. As Stanley Katz, a professor of public affairs at Princeton, sees it, they are dominated by “faculties for whom thoughtful consideration of undergraduate education is simply not on the agenda.”11

As a result, few universities design basic core curriculums for their undergraduates. There are exceptions, like Columbia and Chicago, which encourage a continuing faculty discussion about what an educated person should be aware of. Other schools are less demanding. For example, Harvard requires that all students enroll in a course in “Quantitative Reasoning.” At first glance, this seems promising; and it is obviously important, for example, to know how to use mathematical models to forecast, say, global warming or future health care costs. However, it is possible to satisfy Harvard’s requirement by taking any one of nineteen standard courses already in the catalog, including staples such as multivariable calculus and linear algebra.

Research universities also make very little effort to induce their senior faculty to teach first- and second-year students. And if they don’t want to, as is often the case, it’s unlikely they would be good at it.


The jacket of Jennifer Washburn’s University, Inc.: The Corporate Corruption of American Higher Education shows a mortarboard with a “Sold” tag attached. Her book is valuable for its details, but the general picture is familiar. Pharmaceutical companies farm out research to medical schools, and can prevent the release of findings that don’t promote their products. College teams are now worth as much as professional franchises, with players encouraged to take undemanding courses taught by obliging professors. Schools market themselves with Madison Avenue slogans, and try to lure students by providing outsized jacuzzis and five-story climbing walls. I certainly agree that there’s corruption and commercialization in university life. But I’m not so sure that if universities are selling themselves—or selling out—they are doing so for the reasons Washburn cites.

For example, she says that the embrace of business practices is “also changing what is being taught,” citing a state university where unprofitable “degree programs in classics, German, French, and several other humanities departments were eliminated.” Subjects like these, its president told her, are “stuff that you don’t need.” At first hearing, this sounds shocking. In fairness, the book might have noted that faculty members in these fields continue to teach; indeed George Mason University continues to list ninety-two courses in these fields, including “The Age of Goethe,” “Medieval French Literature,” and “Greek and Roman Comedy.” At the same time, she might have asked why, with an enrollment of 17,102, so few had chosen to major in the humanities. The standard answer is that students now want practical credentials, like degrees in business or computer science. Yet it is also possible that not enough professors tried to make their subjects interesting to a broader range of students. This can be done without betraying scholarly standards, or inflating grades, or resorting to showmanship. What is wanted is a serious commitment to undergraduate teaching, a trait not commonly found at research universities and those aspiring to that status.

The commercial activities that Washburn describes derive largely from the fact that universities have become huge research empires that need continual infusions of cash to sustain their personnel and overhead costs. Recent figures from the National Center for Education Statistics show that employees who are not teachers make up 71 percent of Stanford’s total payroll, as do 73 percent at Columbia and 83 percent at Harvard.12 Many of these people do research. But even more are counselors, fund-raisers, groundskeepers, lawyers, security personnel, admissions officers, or coaches.

The medical schools at these universities provide telling evidence. Regarded simply as colleges for training physicians, most of them are really quite small. For example, Johns Hopkins Medical School has only 482 students, fewer than in Williams’s freshman class. Yet capitalizing on their presence, its university has applied for and receives $364 million in federal research funding, even though these outlays have only a marginal relation to medical education.13 In addition to federal money, the school applies for grants from companies, foundations, and charities. Nationwide, university medical schools and hospitals have 112,000 students and residents. Yet there are 137,000 professors on their payrolls, at least one for each student.14 Most of this putative faculty do little or no teaching, but work on research paid for by grants and contracts funded by the government or private companies and foundations.

Murray Sperber, a professor of English at Indiana University and the author of several books on college sports, has proposed that universities spin off their research facilities, allowing them to become wholly independent entities, with their own managements, budgets, and new names. The Rand Corporation, the Brookings Institution, and SRI International all do competent research without direct academic connections. In fact, SRI began as a branch of Stanford University, but has been on its own since 1970. Sperber’s view is that organizations like these can contract with businesses, the military, even clandestine agencies, on their clients’ terms, without having to worry about any effects on academic values.15

As often as not, the lack of concern for education originates within the institutions themselves. Since 1980, average tuition at private colleges has more than doubled, rising from $10,954 to $23,505 in today’s dollars. Schools charge what the market will bear, and since applicants seem willing to pay, enrollments haven’t dropped. Boston University is asking $28,906 and Southern California $28,827—about the same as many more famous schools. But how much of this money is applied to undergraduate teaching? Will every student be able to take part in a seminar each semester?

What can be shown is that much tuition money is allocated to expanding the top tiers of the faculty, both in numbers and in what they are paid. During the last twenty years, Harvard’s roster of full professors has grown from 533 to 777, Columbia’s from 462 to 589, and Duke’s from 284 to 399, while student enrollments have remained essentially the same. Table C gives examples of how salaries of full professors have risen in real terms, and how much they take of their faculties’ budgets. Nationally, at 115 colleges and universities, full professors are paid on average more than $100,000 a year, including at small schools like Hamilton and Colby.16 Indeed, forty-one public institutions pay full professors more than $100,000, despite cuts in legislative funding. While salary increases at the state schools in Table C are below those in the private sector, full professors there are still receiving the biggest share of their institutions’ budgets.

As matters stand, one measure of a university’s prestige is how little teaching is asked of its tenured professors. Although there are more endowed chairs at the top, more undergraduates are now taught by graduate assistants, adjuncts, and part-time faculty who will never be promoted. Some even handle full loads for a third of the $100,000 that professors get even if they don’t teach. Unfortunately, that saving is what makes the six-figure salaries possible.

Princeton’s mathematics department may be an extreme example, but it offers a glimpse of academic priorities. It has fifty-six professorial-rank faculty, who supervise fifty-five graduate students and thirty juniors and seniors majoring in math. Simple arithmetic suggests that even if courses are added for students who do not major in mathematics, some professors will not enter a classroom in a typical semester. Doubtless they will say they are engaged in research. But even esteemed faculties have members who have essentially ceased publishing since receiving tenure.

While other organizations such as corporations have fewer people at the top of the hierarchy, senior ranks at colleges outnumber those lower down, often by a large margin, and are paid a high proportion of the total payroll. At the schools cited in Table C, full professors absorb upward of 79 percent of overall instructional budgets. In fact, at most of them, full professors exceed assistant professors by greater ratios than they did twenty years ago. Legally, full professors who wish can stay on with full salaries as long as they want. In 1983, the campuses in North Carolina’s system reported that only 34 percent of their regular faculty members were under the age of forty. By 2003, the proportion had fallen to 18 percent. Of twenty-two professors in one economics department, just one was under forty.17 This trend seems at least as worrisome as corporate contracts at medical schools.

Far too few of our nation’s undergraduates are getting the educations they want and deserve. The easiest reply is that they have only themselves to blame, as we often hear in reference to their careerism and partying, and remarks like Douthat’s that students devote the least amount of effort to their studies. Or in professors’ laments about student apathy, lax attendance, and indifference toward assignments.

Yet my own observation is that young people of college age have a capacity for intellectual curiosity, and will respond when their minds are aroused. This is in fact happening at many independent liberal arts colleges, where their professors’ first commitment is to teaching undergraduates. I have visited many of these schools and seen how students are encouraged to use their minds, including those who may have first enrolled there for sports or other nonacademic activities. While faculty members may not engage in much research, they work together to maintain a common curriculum. Moreover, I have no doubt that the 322,791 students now at these colleges do not differ inherently from the millions who are being ignored on mega-campuses. I am also convinced that despite differences in endowments and faculty salaries, as good an education can be had at Coe College in Iowa, Whitman College in Washington, and Knox College in Illinois as at brand-name schools like Williams and Swarthmore.

A student who is now basically majoring in beer at the University of Arizona could be presenting a paper on Molière at Oregon’s Lewis & Clark College. Plenty of teachers know how to provide the best in undergraduate education. The question is whether they will ever reach the larger number of students who should be learning from them. The recent trends in higher education suggest that the prospects of that happening are not good.


The Truth about the Colleges’ April 6, 2006

The Truth about the Colleges’ March 9, 2006

  1. 7

    The Hillel Web site gives estimates of the number of Jewish students on each campus. For example, it reports 27 percent at Columbia, 25 percent at Yale, and 21 percent at Brown. Using its figures, it appears that Jewish and Asian students together make up 51 percent of the enrollment at Harvard and 54 percent at Penn.

  2. 8

    See Jay Mathews, “Asian Americans Say Colleges Expect More from Them,” The Washington Post, March 22, 2005. For a student’s perspective, see Rai Chan, “Admissions Policies Unfair to Asians,” Daily Princetonian, November 29, 2004. Malcolm Gladwell traces the interplay of academic and non-academic criteria in admissions, from the turn of the last century up to and including the present, in “Getting In: The Social Logic of Ivy League Admissions,” The New Yorker, October 10, 2005.

  3. 9

    Student Engagement: Pathways to Collegiate Success (Center for Postsecondary Research, Indiana University, 2004), p. 22.

  4. 10

    Colleges: An Endangered Species?” and “The Endangered University,”The New York Review, March 10 and March 24, 2005.

  5. 11

    Liberal Education on the Ropes,” Chronicle of Higher Education, April 1, 2005, p. B8.

  6. 12

    Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System, Statistical Results for Fall 2003.

  7. 13

    See Marcia Angell, “Is Academic Medicine for Sale?” The New England Journal of Medicine, May 18, 2000, pp. 1516–1518. In her view, it very much is.

  8. 14

    Statistical Information Related to Medical Schools and Teaching Hospitals (Association of American Medical Colleges, 2005), pp. 8, 34.

  9. 15

    How Undergraduate Education Became College Lite,” in Hersh and Merrow, Declining by Degrees, pp. 139–140.

  10. 16

    American Association of University Professors, Annual Report on the Economic Status of the Profession, 2004– 2005.

  11. 17

    Advancing in Age,” Chronicle of Higher Education, June 3, 2005, pp. 6–8.

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