College: The End of the Golden Age


Except for a brief contraction in the early 1990s, the higher education system in the United States has been growing steadily since the late 1970s. Roughly half of all Americans now have attended college at some point in their lives, and roughly a quarter hold a postsecondary degree. (In the United Kingdom, by contrast, less than 15 percent of the population goes to university.) There are 14.5 million students in American colleges and universities today. In 1975 there were a little over 11 million; in 1965 there were fewer than 6 million. And yet when people in higher education talk about its condition and its prospects, doom is often in their voices. There are three matters these people tend to worry about: the future of the liberal arts college; the “collapse” (as it’s frequently termed) of the academic disciplines, particularly the humanities; and the seemingly intractable disparity between the supply of Ph.D.’s and the demand for new faculty. There are more college students than ever. Why does the system feel to many of the people who work in it as though it is struggling?

The fate of the liberal arts college, the decay of the disciplines, and the tightening of the academic job market present, on one level, distinct issues. The problems at the liberal arts college are chiefly financial; the problems in the humanities disciplines are chiefly philosophical (what does it mean to study “English,” for example); the problems with the job market are chiefly administrative—at some point, it seems, graduate schools will simply have to stop admitting more students than they can hope to place in permanent teaching positions. (Despite the consumer warnings about the job market that are now routinely issued to applicants by graduate admissions committees, between 1985 and 1997 graduate student enrollment increased by 27 percent.) The issues are related, though, and the easiest way to see why is to look at the system as a whole.

According to the Carnegie Foundation classification (the industry standard), there are 3,941 higher education institutions in the United States. Only 228 of these—5.8 percent of the total—are four-year liberal arts colleges that are not part of universities. Even in the major research universities (the schools categorized as Doctoral/ Research–Extensive in the Carnegie classification, including such schools as Harvard, Yale, and the University of Chicago), only half of the bachelor’s degrees are awarded in liberal arts fields (that is, the natural sciences, social sciences, and humanities). In fact, apart from a small rise between 1955 and 1970, the number of undergraduate degrees awarded annually in the liberal arts has been declining for a century. The expansion of American higher education has been centripetal, away from the traditional liberal arts core. The biggest undergraduate major by far in the United States is business. Twenty percent of all BAs are awarded in that field. Ten percent are in education. Seven percent are in the health professions. There are almost twice as many undergraduate degrees conferred every year in a field…

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