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Can the Colleges Be Saved?

20th Century Fox/Everett Collection
Betty Grable, top right, in How to Be Very, Very Popular, 1955


Many years ago I asked Otto Neugebauer, a pioneering historian of mathematics and astronomy in the ancient world, about his education in pre–World War I Austria. Neugebauer was known both for his comprehensive histories and for his editions and interpretations of very difficult texts—mathematical and astronomical tables and horoscopes, preserved on cuneiform tablets, in Greek papyri and Latin manuscripts, and in many other sources and traditions. (Late in life, Neugebauer mastered Ethiopic and wrote penetrating work on Ethiopian astronomy and calendrics.)

I expected him to say something warm about his teachers at gymnasium, along the lines of the memoir in which another great émigré scholar, Erwin Panofsky, described the “lovable pedant” who taught him Greek in Berlin (this gentleman reproached himself in class for failing to notice a misplaced comma in a Greek text, since he himself had written an article on that very comma long before). Instead, Neugebauer told me that he had hated his secondary school. He received his diploma, he explained, only because he volunteered for the army, which led to several years of service in the artillery on the Italian front. And he did not begin to work at a high level until he went to university after the war.

It was surprising enough to learn that Neugebauer, whose brilliant, demanding lectures on ancient science had impressed even Richard Feynman, no admirer of the humanities, had ever been a less than brilliant student. But I was even more shocked when he went on to explain that he thought his experience typical of the only general principle about education that he had been able to distill from his career of many decades in German and American universities. I asked him to reveal it. He smiled and said: “No system of education known to man is capable of ruining everyone.”

In recent years, I have often found myself thinking back to that conversation. For if the nature of education and the uses of four years of college could stir passions thirty years ago, when Neugebauer told me his story, they are now the objects of a debate, extensive and often intemperate, that rages in magazines, on the blogosphere, and in the political institutions that control public colleges and universities. Americans assert and challenge the value of both with a passion that shows how important they consider the subject and a lack of precise information that shows how little is actually known about it. Sometimes they make me nostalgic for Neugebauer’s secure understanding that the effects of education are always mysterious.

The belief that college matters deeply is both implicit and ubiquitous. It dominates upper-middle-class and upper-class family strategies, it wins buyers for magazines that offer pointless and inaccurate university ratings, it generates income for college counselors, and it sustains alumni loyalty (genetics is destiny, a fellow professor told me thirty years ago, as we thought about which colleges our children might attend and realized that we might have sealed their possibilities by our own choices). Most important, it impels tens of thousands of students and their families to spend vast amounts of money every year.

The belief that college matters very little is also ubiquitous: it echoes through the dingy mansions of American public discourse. We hear such a belief when Rick Santorum criticizes President Obama for trying to ensure that as many Americans as possible should attend college, and denounces universities as snobbish institutions, divorced from reality and focused on indoctrinating the young with left-wing dogmas; when the billionaire businessman Peter Thiel offers prizes for top-ranked students willing to drop out of college and try to succeed as entrepreneurs; when writers argue that the college premium in wages is overrated and the American concern with selective admissions rests on erroneous beliefs about the practical value of higher education. These people are all, in their various ways, arguing that higher education has become a strange ghost world, whose practices and beliefs are foreign to those of most ordinary Americans, and whose benefits, intellectual or practical, may be few.

What’s clear to everyone on both sides is that American higher education rests on shaky economic foundations. Since the campaign for Proposition 13 in California in the late 1970s, governors, regents, and voters in state after state have abandoned the old idea that higher education is a public good for which all should pay. Private universities flew high in the prosperity of the 1990s and 2000s—but the crash of 2008 has cut deeply into many endowments. Many trustees and administrators have lost their former confidence that future economic expansion would finance present expenses and the borrowing that sustained them. Large gifts are hard to find, though some universities continue to receive them. Big grants are becoming rare too, as government support for scientific research declines.

Both private and public universities have seized on the only source of income within their control, tuition payments, and pushed them higher, year after year—much higher than the rate of inflation, to say nothing of family incomes, which have been flat for a decade. A few rich universities have made highly publicized efforts to contain costs for their students, providing scholarships for a larger and larger percentage of them (Harvard and Yale guarantee substantial support for students whose families earn $200,000 or less; even before they acted, Princeton ceased requiring students to take out any loans). President Obama and the Democrats tried, before the 2010 elections, to enhance the federal program of Pell Grants—though they did not succeed in attaining most of the president’s goals.

For the most part, though, students and their families have covered these increasing costs by borrowing more money. Students and former students owe more, at this point, for their educations than is owed in either credit card or automobile debt. Yet many fail to find profitable employment after graduation. Traditionally lucrative professional careers like law and medicine no longer promise a firm stairway to top incomes. Even finance, on which Ivy League graduates have been descending for some years like hunger on a loaf, generates fewer jobs than it did. In the long term, consumers will not remain willing to fund a system that loads them with debt and provides few visible financial benefits in return. At the least, a shake-up is coming, and possibly something more dramatic.


In circumstances like these, it’s not surprising that observers, participants, and educators have begun to wonder what the value of a college education actually is. Andrew Delbanco, a distinguished student of American literature and longtime Columbia university professor, offers some answers in College: What It Was, Is, and Should Be. His book gives a brief and lucid overview of higher education’s current precarious state. Like the public-spirited humanist he is—Delbanco received one of 2011’s National Humanities Medals—he does not indulge in the polemics that mar so many other recent entries in this field. And he offers at least two cheers for the American college, as it is and as it might be reformed.

Like a number of other professors of English who have addressed the problems of higher education in recent books—notably Christopher Newfield and Frank Donoghue—Delbanco takes a genetic or historical approach to his subject. He traces the history of the American college from its origins, the collegiate system created in medieval Oxford and Cambridge, to the present, in which more than four thousand colleges and universities enroll some 20 million students.

Delbanco’s overview, though brief, is lucid and well informed. He reviews the different stages through which higher education has passed, from the tiny colleges of the colonies and the early republic to the great knowledge factories—research universities—that came into being in the Reform Era and after. He follows the student body from its all-male and all-white beginnings to its multigendered, multiethnic, and multicultural present. He shows the curriculum evolving from the study of the classics, mathematics, and morality required for all students in the early days to the immense buffet table of electives that students sample nowadays. And he argues, reasonably and cogently, that the college has been both improved and damaged by this long and complex history.

Historians of the modern university traditionally described the colleges of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries as pretty benighted places. Small, overworked faculties dealt out rote instruction, unconnected with advanced thought in the sciences or the humanities. Students concentrated less on Greek or mathematics than on—as a contemporary account of Princeton in 1853 had it—“the calculation of Chances” (the chance, that is, of being called on in class; when it loomed, they prepared). Cheating flourished, and crammers provided help for those who could not be bothered to study hard enough to pass the exams, which were at once lackadaisically administered and arbitrary in content. Excitement was generated less by intellectual issues than by such memorable pranks as the Princeton students’ sinking of P.T. Barnum’s painted “car of Juggernaut” in the Delaware and Raritan Canal.

No wonder that Charles William Eliot, who became president of Harvard in 1869, insisted on freeing students from archaic requirements and allowing them to follow their interests through the byways of a new system of hundreds of electives. This was the only way to bring college education up to date, to engage the new, research-minded faculty of the later nineteenth century in teaching, and to turn students, by treating them as adults, from passive auditors into active learners.

In recent years, Caroline Winterer and others have shown that the old colleges were actually much livelier places, intellectually, than reformers like Eliot claimed. Delbanco agrees, noting that their required uniform curricula forced students to work on many disciplines at the same time, long before interdisciplinarity became a word at all, much less a buzz word. For all the sterile traditions and practices that witnesses like Henry Adams complained of, the old colleges offered a good many students the chance to feel real intellectual excitement. They produced abolitionists, for example, at a great rate: of a sample of 250 abolitionist leaders, almost 80 percent had attended college, at a time when less than 2 percent of the population as a whole did so. Evidently, the antebellum colleges either made boys think about the great issues of their time, or attracted boys who wanted to do so, or, most likely, both. And that, for Delbanco, is one of the great purposes for which colleges exist at all: not to prepare people for jobs but to set their minds alight.

But Delbanco also makes a further argument—one aligned with the views of historians of the university like Julie Reuben and James Turner, and consistent, as he notes, with the tablets displayed in the Victorian grandeur of Memorial Hall that bear the names of Harvard’s Civil War dead. The old colleges set out not only to inform their students, but to form them: to teach them moral science, after the model of the Scottish colleges (to whose importance Delbanco does not do justice), and to make them see that they had a duty to serve the society that had brought them up in comfort and allowed them to smoke their pipes, drink their wine, and enjoy their male bonding through four years of college.

‘Oh, father and mother pay all the bills, and we have all the fun’; illustration by Frederick R. Gruger from Owen Johnson’s Stover at Yale, 1912

This training didn’t work all the time, but it had an impact. The fictional undergraduates in Owen Johnson’s Stover at Yale were obsessed by their desire to lead lives worthy of their alma mater. The real products of Yale and its sister schools willingly fought and died for their country, generation after generation. And it was this emphasis on moral education that a traditionalist like Princeton’s James McCosh defended when he argued, against Harvard’s Eliot, for retaining the old, required curriculum. Even in the twentieth century, the products of the old colleges learned moral lessons, and to that extent they remained the inheritors of the ancient clerical idealism of the eighteenth-century founders.

For Delbanco, the moral sensibility, the sense of responsibility that college instilled in men like Franklin Roosevelt and Kingman Brewster, inspired them to transform American society as a whole, and their own beloved almae matres in particular. Yale men were never truer to Mother Yale than when they insisted, after World War II, on admitting Jewish and Catholic and African-American men, and then women, to what had been the paradisal retreat for generations of Aryans from Darien.

At times, Delbanco believes, the modern college still takes stands in the old ways, and still carries out some of its traditional tasks. In class and outside it, in casual conversations with other students and in intensive bouts of reading deep in the bowels of the library, a light still goes on for no reason anyone can supply, and a young person or a whole class suddenly sees a poem or a work of art illuminated in a new way. Though Delbanco says less about the moral than the intellectual world of the contemporary college, he could also have noted that colleges still manage to teach lessons about duty—if not to most of their students, at least to the substantial minority who still choose to pursue ill-paid careers in which they serve others.

For the most part, though, Delbanco sees the true college as threatened in many ways. In research universities, passionate and effective undergraduate teaching offers no prestige, no profit, and no prospect of permanence. A governing scientific ideal, which emphasizes the ongoing transformation of all fields of knowledge, relegates the transmission of knowledge to at best a secondary status. Humanists, whose subjects do not show progress—Charles Mee, who adapts such plays as The Bacchae, is a fine tragedian, but you mustn’t confuse him with Euripides—are marginalized in academic life unless they adopt a kind of parody of the scientific method, and begin tabulating all the forms of plot used in Victorian novels as if they were a literary counterpart to the human genome.

Saddest of all, the serious courses on the bases of the Western tradition that Delbanco sees as best adapted to opening minds and building characters are rarely required. And even at Columbia and Chicago, where students have to take them, they are mostly taught by younger faculty and graduate students who can be assigned to them, along with a few true believers from the older faculty. Most younger professors look forward to their release from this sort of required generalist teaching, for which they have neither the training nor the taste.

In the outside world, by contrast, pragmatism reigns. As college costs rise and job prospects for graduates dim, parents, officials, and students themselves view education more and more as a matter of profit and loss. All that really matters in evaluating an education, from this point of view, is the first job a new graduate obtains. Other considerations are seen as airy-fairy—pointless repetitions of familiar phrases about humanism and other traditions, which are exposed as meaningless as soon as they face the pitiless judgment of the market that evaluates everything at its true worth. The professor of the humanities is left, like the ex-drunkard humanist S. Levin in Bernard Malamud’s A New Life, faintly murmuring “The liberal arts feed our hearts” to deaf ears.

In theory, elite colleges and universities have tried to maintain a commitment to the liberal arts. In recent years, moreover, they have emphasized the importance of making these treasures available—as in principle they should be—to a “diverse” student body. They have tried to attract students of color and from poor families by offering far larger scholarships than in the past, and by transvaluing the terms that were created, a century ago, to keep Jews and Catholics out of the best schools.

Once upon a time, admissions officials emphasized character traits and athletic achievement in order to explain why they were accepting white Anglo-Saxon Protestants while rejecting students of higher academic ability from other ethnic groups. Now they emphasize character traits and athletic achievement in order to explain why they still don’t apply exclusively academic criteria when choosing students.

Systematic effort has brought more poor students to some elite colleges—Delbanco singles out Amherst, where the devoted work of former president Anthony Marx wrought major changes in the student body without compromising the college’s academic quality, and he might also have mentioned its sister school Smith, with its long-running Ada Comstock Scholars Program, aimed at older women. But admissions policies are rife with hypocrisy, as Delbanco makes clear. Rich colleges give both tacit and explicit preference to the children of celebrities, potential donors, and inhabitants of wealthy zip codes, even as they claim to be fighting for equality. In the end, very few of the poor gain entrance to most bastions of the liberal arts—so few, Delbanco tells us twice, that these colleges “are doing more to sustain than to retard the growth of inequality in our society.”

Delbanco’s book lives up to two thirds of its subtitle. He offers a clear and useful vision of what college has been in America, and of what it is now. And he is perfectly right to chastise the elite institutions for their unexamined claims to cherish diversity. As a student of mine from Crown Heights once remarked, at a time when Princeton seemed chiefly interested in extending the range of communities it drew on, “There’s more diversity in one block where I live than in a dozen suburbs with their country day schools.” If we really wanted diversity of experience in our students, as Delbanco observes, we could achieve it by seeking out able military veterans—a realm in which Columbia, thanks to its School of General Studies, has outdone its fellow Ivy League schools (my own university currently has two undergraduate veterans enrolled, a number I do not cite with pride).

Worst of all, he argues that the ludicrously competitive admissions process, through which only 5 or 6 percent of applicants gain entrance to the most selective colleges, leaves the winners with a sense that they have earned their places by their own abilities and efforts. Unlike the Roosevelts and Kennedys who knew that their social position had won them their places, they do not feel the humility and gratitude that they should—and that made their well-born predecessors embark on lives of service.

Here, perhaps, Delbanco goes farther than his evidence warrants. Plenty of college graduates in the old days learned little more than to wear the right clothes to set off their Porcellian pig or fraternity pin—and denounced Roosevelt and Brewster as class traitors. When Inky Clark, Brewster’s chosen director of admissions, set out to open up the Yale class, he was asked to explain his policies to the Yale Corporation. A prominent banker bluntly told him the facts of his own, older, generation’s life: “Look around you at this table. These are America’s leaders. There are no Jews here. There are no public school graduates here.” Not much sense of guilt or humility either.

In this and other cases, College tries to do too much in too narrow a space. At times Delbanco himself seems uncertain about his principal goals. Sometimes he makes clear that he is addressing the problems and prospects of elite institutions—for example, the little group of traditional liberal arts colleges, all of whose students could fit in the football stadium of a single Big Ten school. Sometimes he seems to be worrying about the majority of American students—the six million and more who attend community colleges, for example. But the problems that afflict community colleges—most of which practice open admissions and spend, on average, something like $10,000 a year per student—are quite different from those that afflict flagship state universities and elite private colleges.

In the last few years, the enrollments of public community colleges have risen steeply, but their budgets have been cut—cut even more than those of other classes of institutions. At the same time, many of their faculty members, like schoolteachers, have found themselves under pressure to meet statistical goals, sometimes at the expense of more profound kinds of education. The distance from this world to the one that Delbanco and I know best is very great, and it receives less light from his torch than the Ivy League does.

More seriously, Delbanco offers no real solutions to the problems he identifies. To begin on the practical level, following the money: elite private colleges and universities are afflicted, as any number of observers have noted, with the disease of rising costs named after the economist William Baumol. Like a string quartet, a good college becomes more expensive over time, as increasing general prosperity requires that its professors receive higher salaries. Like a string quartet, too, the college cannot improve its productivity if it goes on doing what it has always done: for example, putting small groups of students into classes run by full members of the faculty, or requiring every senior to write a thesis based on original research, supervised by a professor. Hence the always-rising cost of a system that seems immune to change—and hence the difficulty of really reengineering the system so that it exemplifies the democracy that it preaches.

At public universities, by contrast, rising professorial salaries haven’t caused the deepest problems. The faculty in many state systems have had no raises for several years. Even at the greatest public research universities, such as Berkeley and Michigan, average professorial salaries are around 25 percent lower than at private universities of comparable quality. Rather, the withdrawal of state funding has pushed these institutions into difficulties—and, in some cases, into what may be irreparable decline. Only a political decision to treat higher education, once more, as a public good would save the situation. It seems unlikely that many state legislatures will see the light in the near future.

To be sure—as Delbanco recognizes—universities can increase productivity and lower costs. Technology can bring some kinds of content to students more inexpensively than traditional forms of teaching. And transforming tenure-track jobs, which can lead to life employment, into contingent positions, whose occupants can stay for only a limited period, or adjunct positions, whose occupants are paid by the single course, can lower the cost of small classes.

The problem with these remedies is simple: one ends up destroying the village in order to save it. Online teaching can work very well—but doing it properly, with skilled consultants available to help students personally at any time, is not cheap, and doing it cheaply does not yield good results. Online education, when provided without such backup, is another and a nobler word for extorting tuition money for nothing. Adjunct and contingent faculty often do an amazing job. But faculty working without job security, without benefits, and without offices of their own necessarily have less time and fewer resources to devote to students than permanent faculty.

As the tuition spiral continues, even very wealthy schools are moving down the paths of online or other solutions (some are far down them already). Delbanco argues that traditional small classes deserve to be saved, and should be made available to all students, and I agree with him. But he doesn’t suggest how to achieve this, or even make clear that their survival may be connected with the very admissions practices that he complains of. After all, the children of rich parents don’t receive preference in admission because university administrators like them better. They receive it because gifts from their families may temporarily ease the financial pain that their university is suffering—and help to preserve tenure-track jobs and small classes. Such undemocratic expedients are distasteful, but they enable some poor students, along with many prosperous ones, to receive a better and more rigorous education. As Delbanco points out in another connection, the dilemmas are easier to identify than to solve.

Higher education, finally, is a moving target, and at times Delbanco’s brief account omits important changes. He argues that the concentration on research has distorted graduate education, as it often has. Most professors are trained at research universities, but spend their careers at very different institutions. If they find jobs at community colleges, the one expanding area of the not-for-profit higher education sector, they teach five courses a semester. At many four-year colleges and universities, though loads are lighter, teaching is still a professor’s main job, and course assignments are heavy enough to discourage research. Yet graduate students are admitted to doctoral study on purely academic grounds. Their training, by Delbanco’s account, is wholly, or almost wholly, devoted to their research. The lack of fit between graduate school and work seems painful—as if surgeons or dentists could qualify for working inside other people’s bodies without ever demonstrating fine motor skills.

Graduate education was once exactly as Delbanco describes it. My own training in the 1970s, and that of most of my contemporaries, included no practice or discussion of teaching. In recent years, however, universities have created mentorship programs in which faculty work with students beginning to teach, and founded centers for teaching and learning whose staff can attend or videotape classes and offer expert criticism and advice. What’s missing is not training in teaching, though this could certainly be improved and made more systematic, but something at once tenuous, essential, and difficult to create: a sincere belief that teaching should play a substantive part in choosing university faculty, and a grasp of how to evaluate and promote it in a rigorous way. Though Delbanco tells stories of great teachers of the past and gives a few examples of programs he admires, he never makes clear how universities locked in competition for preeminence in research can be induced to take teaching seriously, or how they would go about improving their offerings.

College, in other words, doesn’t really tell us how to make higher education what it should be. But if it’s short on solutions, it gives a lucid, fair, and well-informed account of the problems, and it offers a full-throated defense of the idea that you don’t go to college just to get a job. Delbanco’s brevity, wit, and curiosity about the past and its lessons for the present give his book a humanity all too rare in the literature on universities.

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