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Our Universities: Why Are They Failing?

Wolfgang Volz/laif/Redux
Killian Court in front of Building 10 at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, Massachusetts, September 2002

American universities crowd the tops of many world rankings, and though these ratings are basically entertainment for university administrators and alumni, they do reflect certain facts. A number of American universities offer their faculty salaries and working conditions, laboratories and libraries that few institutions elsewhere can match. They spend more not only on their staff, but also on their graduate and undergraduate students, than their peers overseas. Though their fees seem enormous by European or Asian standards, they have worked hard in recent years to keep them from deterring poor students by offering more generous aid for undergraduates and by paying full fees for all doctoral students. At every level of the system, dedicated professors are setting students on fire with enthusiasm for everything from the structure of crystals to the structure of poems.

Yet American universities also attract ferocious criticism, much of it from professors and from journalists who know them well, and that’s entirely reasonable too. Every coin has its other side, every virtue its corresponding vice—and practically every university its festering sores. At the most prestigious medical schools, professors publish the work of paid flacks for pharmaceutical companies under their own names. At many state universities and more than a few private ones, head football and basketball coaches earn millions and their assistants hundreds of thousands for running semiprofessional teams. Few of these teams earn much money for the universities that sponsor them, and some brutally exploit their players.

At competitive private colleges and universities, admissions directors reserve places in each class for the children of alumni and potential donors; for athletes, many of whom will make less use of their academic opportunities than their classmates do; and simply for those who can pay. And at universities that boast of their commitment to undergraduate teaching, too many professors gabble through PowerPoint slides twice a week and entrust the face-to-face teaching of actual students to underpaid graduate students and Ph.D.s on short-term contracts, who do their best to impart basic skills in writing and quantitative analysis while earning only a few thousand dollars a course.

It’s not hard to see why colleges and universities resist simple evaluations. There are now almost five thousand universities and colleges—both two-year and four-year—in the US. Millions attend them, including around 40 percent of eighteen-to-twenty-four-year-old Americans and a great many older students. Postsecondary education stretches from the tree-shaded Olympuses of the Ivy-plus private group and the imposing quadrangles of the great public universities to urban community colleges that run twelve hours a day, surrounded only by vast parking lots that are never big enough to accommodate everyone. It’s private and public, mass and elite, ancient and ivy-covered, contemporary and cutting-edge. No generalization could do justice to this vast and varied scene.

Many—perhaps most—books on the American university fall into two categories. Jeremiads seem to pop off the presses every week. A fair number of them conform to a single type, one that embraces books as varied in their origins as The Faculty Lounges (2011), a blast at professors written by a distinguished journalist, Naomi Schaefer Riley, and The Fall of the Faculty (2011), an attack on administrators written by a distinguished political scientist, Benjamin Ginsberg. Instead of examining these complex communities from multiple points of view, they single out one group of actors as villains. Instead of offering detailed accounts of particular colleges and universities, which could give a sense of the rhythms and textures of academic lives, they pile up stories clipped from popular media and Web pages; describe individual experiences, often egregious ones, as if they marked a general rule; and recycle anecdotes already worn smooth by the handling they have undergone in previous polemical works.

Even so, not all their arrows miss their targets. Riley provides a well-informed and depressing account of the mistreatment of adjunct and contingent faculty. Ginsberg rightly points out that numbers of administrators and professional staffers have grown far more quickly than numbers of faculty, pushing up the costs that students and their families pay without enhancing the academic side of their experience. But when Riley dismisses most research as worthless because a few senior academics say it is, or Ginsberg dismisses the entire class of administrators as idlers interested only in the next pointless conference in Hawaii, both take flight into a realm of higher snark that is fun to read but ultimately unhelpful.

The other set of books is very different. Seriously researched, rich in data, and sometimes adorned with dozens of tables that the uninitiated may find cryptic, works like The Chosen (2005) by Jerome Karabel, Unmaking the Public University (2008) by Christopher Newfield, Crossing the Finish Line (2009) by William Bowen, Matthew Chingos, and Michael McPherson, and Academically Adrift (2011) by Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa focus on particular aspects of the system. They excavate a world of ugly facts and unsatisfactory practices that has the gritty look and feel of reality—a reality that has little to do with the glossy hype of world university ratings.

In Academically Adrift, Arum and Roksa paint a chilling portrait of what the university curriculum has become. The central evidence that the authors deploy comes from the performance of 2,322 students on the Collegiate Learning Assessment, a standardized test administered to students in their first semester at university and again at the end of their second year: not a multiple-choice exam, but an ingenious exercise that requires students to read a set of documents on a fictional problem in business or politics and write a memo advising an official on how to respond to it. Data from the National Survey of Student Engagement, a self-assessment of student learning filled out by millions each year, and recent ethnographies of student life provide a rich background.

Their results are sobering. The Collegiate Learning Assessment reveals that some 45 percent of students in the sample had made effectively no progress in critical thinking, complex reasoning, and writing in their first two years. And a look at their academic experience helps to explain why. Students reported spending twelve hours a week, on average, studying—down from twenty-five hours per week in 1961 and twenty in 1981. Half the students in the sample had not taken a course that required more than twenty pages of writing in the previous semester, while a third had not even taken a course that required as much as forty pages a week of reading.

Results varied to some extent. At every institution studied, from research universities to small colleges, some students performed at high levels, and some programs fostered more learning than others. In general, though, two points come through with striking clarity. First, traditional subjects and methods seem to retain their educational value. Nowadays the liberal arts attract a far smaller proportion of students than they did two generations ago. Still, those majoring in liberal arts fields—humanities and social sciences, natural sciences and mathematics—outperformed those studying business, communications, and other new, practical majors on the CLA. And at a time when libraries and classrooms across the country are being reconfigured to promote trendy forms of collaborative learning, students who spent the most time studying on their own outperformed those who worked mostly with others.

Second, and more depressing: vast numbers of students come to university with no particular interest in their courses and no sense of how these might prepare them for future careers. The desire they cherish, Arum and Roksa write, is to act out “cultural scripts of college life depicted in popular movies such as Animal House (1978) and National Lampoon’s Van Wilder (2002).” Academic studies don’t loom large on their mental maps of the university. Even at the elite University of California, students report that on average they spend “twelve hours [a week] socializing with friends, eleven hours using computers for fun, six hours watching television, six hours exercising, five hours on hobbies”—and thirteen hours a week studying.

For most of them, in the end, what the university offers is not skills or knowledge but credentials: a diploma that signals employability and basic work discipline. Those who manage to learn a lot often—though happily not always—come from highly educated families and attend highly selective colleges and universities. They are already members of an economic and cultural elite. Our great, democratic university system has become a pillar of social stability—a broken community many of whose members drift through, learning little, only to return to the economic and social box that they were born into.

In Britain, as Simon Head has shown in these pages, teachers in university departments are subject to mechanical standards of productivity that are much resented.* But for undergraduates an established system of outside examiners keeps programs across the country honest, ensuring that standards are maintained, even if most students are weak, and providing opportunities for the ablest at every level of the system. American higher education has no comparable system of assessment, and the opportunities that it provides at every level depend on the generosity and engagement of individuals.

In many ways, universities have reshaped themselves over recent decades to support the current version of student life. Particularly in the natural and social sciences, professors are encouraged to feel that it is legitimate to devote most of their energy to research. When they make a discovery, they receive a reward: exemption from time in the classroom. Even those who don’t discover America, as the Italians used to say, spend as much time as they can in the lab or the library. Teaching has been reassigned, more and more, from tenured and tenure-track faculty to graduate students and adjuncts.

In theory, budgetary constraints have forced these measures on reluctant deans. In fact, though, they also make it easier to recruit and retain star academics, whose salaries and research support are costly. It’s a lot easier to convince a Deep Thinker to move to Old Siwash and cogitate for a few graduate students than it is to convince the same Deep Thinker to come teach 120 kids a term.

Even in these supposedly tight times, finally, well-paid administrators and nonacademic professionals proliferate—as do the costly extracurricular activities that they provide, from bonding exercises for freshmen to intercollegiate sports. The message is clear: no one sees classroom learning as a primary pursuit.

Is this a crisis? Arum and Roksa say no, since students and their parents continue to seek and pay for places at colleges and universities, and government and graduate schools continue to accept their products, and corporations continue to hire them (and to spend more than $50 billion a year to train their employees in the skills they need). But those already born into the wealthy and professional classes benefit disproportionately from the best educations. Acquire any sort of college education, and you’ll make more money than you would have if you didn’t. But don’t expect you’ll make what you would have if you had studied applied math at Stanford. And no one knows how long families will be able and willing to pay for four years of largely symbolic training that steadily becomes more expensive and loses impact.

  1. *

    The Grim Threat to British Universities,” The New York Review, January 13, 2011. 

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