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Scandals of Higher Education’: An Exchange

In response to:

Scandals of Higher Education from the March 29, 2007 issue

To the Editors:

Andrew Delbanco’s piece on higher education [“Scandals of Higher Education,” NYR, March 29] ignores the significant changes that have taken place in universities. While describing the unchanging reproductive mechanisms in admissions procedures for leading universities, he ignores the growing and transforming inequalities. Among those easily noticed are:

  1. increasing discrepancies between salaries and status of administrators/managers and professors;

  2. the ever-lessening importance of humanities in the curricula;

  3. the ever-present politicizing of universities in the appointment and operation of the trustees;

  4. the dominant commercialization of universities in function and psychology;

  5. the pervasiveness of the “market” model.

These are only some of the alarming developments in universities today….

Henry Wasser

Professor Emeritus

Former Academic Dean and Vice President

The City University of New YorkNew York City

To the Editors:

Professor Delbanco’s review of Daniel Golden’s The Price of Admission demeans Golden’s argument by reducing it simply to an account of how alumni children and children of major donors secure places at elite institutions. Delbanco omits any reference to two of Golden’s most powerful arguments to support his claim that elite institutions displace qualified students from working-class backgrounds with the children of the privileged: (1) the pervasive offering of athletic scholarships in sports which are unavailable except at the most privileged secondary schools—lacrosse, fencing, etc.; (2) the allocation of a substantial number of places to the children of professors. It is especially regrettable that Professor Delbanco omits reference to the second benefit available to himself and his faculty colleagues.

Frank Wolf

Director, J.K. Watson Fellowship

New York City

To the Editors:

Andrew Delbanco accurately analyzes the increasing presence of upper-income students, and the continuing absence of lower-income students, in our selective colleges and universities. Delbanco rightly worries about the undemocratic implications of these two developments. But he misidentifies what we should do about it. As he notes, the “top 146 colleges” could take some small steps toward bringing in lower-income students; but competition in the rankings pull for taking in students with higher SAT scores and grades. Reducing tuition would actually make it harder for almost all of the 146 (except the obscenely wealthy at the top of the heap) to fund more low-income students, while benefiting wealthy students who don’t need it.

This “scandal of higher education” cannot be solved by those institutions themselves. Making higher education more democratic requires increasing public support for the institutions that in fact educate the vast majority of the middle- and low-income students who do attend college—the state colleges and universities and community colleges, especially those below the top tier of very selective ones. I teach at such an institution, the University of Massachusetts at Boston. My students are serious about their education and many are superb students, who might have attended more selective colleges had they not been so expensive. Others travel in circles in which setting their sights on top-tier colleges is not imagined in their family and class culture.

Delbanco says that “the frenzy of competition makes the prize of admission worth more and more.” That may seem to be so to the admitted and the rejected, but it does not mean that the quality of education at these institutions is enhanced by this competition. Nonelite public universities often have a stronger teaching culture than the elite universities—something closer to that of the small liberal arts college. I’ve had many students over the years who had attended elite universities and found the learning experience superior at UMass/Boston. The quality gap between elite colleges and middle-tier state colleges is a great deal smaller than the reputational gap.

Institutions such as my own are outposts of serious and bright students of modest or low-income background taught by dedicated faculty who are often respected researchers as well. I recently did a poll in one of my upper-level philosophy classes, and the median family or personal income in the class of twenty-five is $35,000. (Walter Benn Michaels, whom Delbanco discusses, says that 75 percent of Harvard students’ families make over $100,000.) But the liberals that Delbanco is speaking to have not rallied to the cause of these students. Nationally, state support of public higher education has taken a nosedive in recent decades; the cost of public higher education increased 39 percent in Massachusetts in the past decade. Our buildings need serious maintenance. We have lost full-time faculty. And a more robust academic and counseling support system, such as is in place in elite universities where there is much less need for it, could help us hold on to more students.

These institutions are home to a democratic institutional culture simply not possible at elite institutions. There is a much wider range of income backgrounds (including a few upper-income students), bringing with it a degree of racial and ethnic diversity that affirmative action in its current incarnation cannot deliver to elite universities. Non-elite state colleges and universities are the only genuine hope for ensuring that our higher education institutions “reflect our best democratic traditions,” as Delbanco characterizes the challenge. It is time that the national agonizing about the income bias of elite institutions shifts its focus to these institutions.

Lawrence Blum

Professor of Philosophy

University of Massachusetts, Boston

Boston, Massachusetts

Andrew Delbanco replies:

I agree with Professor Wasser that “growing and transforming inequalities” are taking hold in our universities. I have discussed most of the themes he mentions (decline of the humanities, commercialization, rise of “market” values) in several previous articles in The New York Review: “The Decline and Fall of Literature” (November 4, 1999), “In Memoriam” (February 27, 2003), “Colleges: An Endangered Species?” (March 10, 2005), and “The Endangered University” (March 24, 2005).

Mr. Wolf, who was my colleague at Columbia for many years, presumably agrees with my general point that colleges should do more for needy students. Yet he rebukes me for failing to note Golden’s “powerful arguments” against “the pervasive offering of athletic scholarships” to prep school athletes and preferences for faculty children. In fact, Ivy League and many other selective colleges do not offer athletic scholarships. As for Golden’s “powerful arguments,” they consist chiefly of anecdotes about fencers (a popular sport in public as well as private schools), polo players (a rare breed), rowers (who, in my experience, are often disciplined and committed students), and, especially, “faculty brats” (Golden’s phrase) who, by his telling, are “lesser lights…sapping the vitality of classroom discussion.” I suspect—though I have no data on this matter, nor does Golden cite any—that faculty children are admitted at higher-than-average rates to selective colleges other than those where their parents teach, which would suggest that, in the aggregate, they tend to be strong candidates. My own children, I should add, did not attend Columbia.

I agree with much of what Professor Blum writes, and made some of his points in my article—for example, that tuition reductions can actually help the wealthy and decrease the amount of financial aid for needy students (footnote 4). He is certainly right that the fierce competition for admission to elite colleges has done nothing to improve the educational experience, and that the “quality gap” between private and public universities is much smaller than the gap in reputation. In fact, there is sometimes no educational gap at all, or one that favors the less “elite” institution. I focused on selective private institutions because they were the subject of the books under review. I fully agree that a renewed national commitment to public education at all levels is essential. But this is a separate issue from the role of selective private institutions, which have an unfulfilled obligation, I believe, to be part of a broader solution to the problem of inequity—both by working harder to admit more students from needy backgrounds and by educating their privileged students for democratic citizenship, which entails a sense of the obligations of privilege.

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